Never Going Home: A Game/Book Review

World War I was a landmark historical event. The conflict completely changed warfare and politics on a global scale. Its events and outcomes (and the mismanagement thereof) led directly to World War II, the Cold War, and then other subsequent conflicts. Wartime advances in technology and manufacturing renovated industry, design, and the economy at large. The social and psychological scars led artists and thinkers in bold new directions.

For better or worse, the modern world was built on the substratum of the Great War. But what if it changed the world in more sinister, supernatural ways as well?

That’s the premise of Wet Ink Games’ Never Going Home.

Never Going Home. Published by Wet Ink Games. System design by Brandon K. Aten and Matthew Orr. Writing by Irvin Jackson, Matthew Orr, and Sarah Orr Aten with Taylor White. Missions by Corey Capps, Crystal Mazur, and Steven Wu. Art by Charles Ferguson-Avery. Edited by Carol Darnell. Layout by Wm. Knox Gunn. © 2020 Wet Ink Games. Image used with permission.

This RPG takes place in the bleak, bloody, muddy trenches of the European theatre. The horrific events of the Battle of the Somme have rent the Veil that protects our mundane reality from malicious outsiders called Others. And far from unifying against this greater threat, the Central and Allied powers instead both see this occult incursion as a powerful new weapon to use against one another in hopes of tipping the balance of power in a rapidly stagnating war.

Will you faithfully serve your nation? Or will you turn your back on power-mad kings, commanders, and officers to instead defend humanity from this unearthly threat? And will you even be human by the time you’re done?

System

Never Going Home uses Wet Ink’s proprietary +One System, which incorporates die rolls and playing cards. Its mechanics are fairly straightforward but still allow players plenty of creative latitude.

Characters & CRM

Characters are essentially defined by three attributes (Brawn, Smarts, and Guts) and nine skills (three tied to each of the attributes). When using a skill, players roll a d6 for each point in that skill; a 5 or a 6 is a success. If they roll a number of successes equal to or greater than the challenge’s Target Number, they succeed.

For each point their character has in a skill’s governing attribute, they’re able to augment the outcome before and after rolling. You can use an untrained skill, add a die to a roll, increase a result by one, and reroll any number of dice.

Certain pieces of gear give additional benefits for success beyond the Target Number. When using a bayonet, for example, two additional successes grant an extra point of damage, and three extra successes let the next attack ignore armor. An additional success with a grenade also grants an extra point of damage, and three additional successes replace standard damage with a d6 roll.

Whispers are learned, used, and augmented with the same basic system. Whisper paths have a controlling attribute, they’re ranked up like skills, and additional successes enhance the Whisper’s effects.

Besides rolling, Whispers also require players to discard a card (which are drawn at the start of each mission). Players will also use cards to bid for initiative during combat, to further augment their rolls, to heal in and out of combat, and to develop their characters at the end of missions.

Cards’ numerical values function as exactly that, and their suits represent different categories of memories. Whenever a player uses a card, it represents their character’s loss of a particular memory and the dehumanizing effects of exposure to warfare and the supernatural.

Characters can exit the game in two ways. Obviously, they can die through physical violence. But they can also succumb to Corruption by acquiring, using, and being targeted by supernatural powers. When a character earns 5 Corruption, they finish the current mission, but at its conclusion, they’re lost to the dark forces stalking the trenches and battlefields. Characters are going to die (or worse), but the nature of the setting will allow players to quickly drop back into the game as a new recruit, a transfer, an incidental encounter, or by some other pretext.

Overall, the system orients on strategy and resource management, but it does so without devolving into unnecessarily elaborate and complicated mechanics.

Antagonists

Enemies have middle-weight stat blocks. Humans’ and supernatural foes’ include the number encountered (solo or mob), attributes, skills and abilities, weapons and armor, weaknesses, and rewards for defeating them; vehicles eschew quantity and attributes. In both cases, they’re a bit more elaborate than extremely rules-lite games—which is to be expected—but significantly more manageable than what you’ll find in heavyweight games like D&D and Pathfinder.

Adventures

Missions are divided into four discrete phases: Briefing, Journey, Incidents, and Decoration.

The Briefing provides the Narrator (game master) with all the relevant, behind-the-scenes details they need to run the mission for their players.

The Journey is a roleplay-based lead-in composed of a series of short vignettes. At the start of the Journey, players contribute certain cards to a pool with the goal of achieving a certain composition (all black cards, one of each suit, etc.); the Narrator tells the players which cards must end up in the pool, but players aren’t allowed to coordinate amongst themselves to ensure the requirements are met. Success provides a bonus to the Unit (party), and failure imposes a penalty. Once players have contributed their cards, the Narrator shuffles and distributes them. Players take turns sharing short scenes inspired by the cards each player’s been dealt.

Incidents are exactly that: a series of occurrences that comprise the substance of the mission.

Decoration rewards surviving characters with more cards, ensuring they’ll have something to spend on character advancement.

One-shot missions consist of these four phases. Longer adventures can consist of multiple missions strung together in a sequence. On the whole, I find it to be a clear, intuitive introduction-escalation-resolution-denouement structure for interactive storytelling.

Writing

As you’d expect, a large portion of Never Going Home is devoted to the mechanics described above. But it also gives significant attention to developing the game’s premise and world. It avoids the standard initial infodump and instead holds exposition until after the mechanics, and it makes the lore engaging by relating it to the characters and by presenting it through in-world documents.

During my readthrough, I noted several typos, malaprops, some awkward phrasing, and other linguistic infelicities in the text. While they were a bit distracting and disappointing, they didn’t pose a significant hurdle to comprehension or usability.

Interpolated Lore

Never Going Home provides a nice overview of World War I without delving into the deep nuances and details. It gives just enough information for Narrators and players to feel immersed and orient themselves in the game, and it also points to additional materials that players can reference to for further research.

The book covers the overall situation before diving into profiles for each of the war’s nine major factions. They include the powers’ place in the conflict, relations to each other, and attitudes toward the supernatural.

The approach blends historical fact with the game’s supernatural conceit, helping to make the premise feel like an integrated whole rather than a history lesson with some fiction tacked on to the end. Each of the faction profiles is geared toward helping players develop their soldiers’ backgrounds, which will encourage them to connect with their characters and motivate them to buy into the game.

Diegetic Documents

The graphic design and visual elements contribute to the Never Going Home’s sense of history and secrecy. © 2020 Wet Ink Games. Used with permission.

Scattered throughout the book, readers will find documents like telegrams, letters, and journal entries. Some of these give glimpses into the upper echelons of military command and life on the home front, but they’re predominantly devoted to developing a narrative around a group of soldiers. This spans daily life in the trenches to their first encounter with the Others to their desertion of duty in favor of preserving their humanity and fighting a greater threat.

All of these documents have genuine character, and they successfully translate the more general descriptions and information into concrete events and scenes. These serve as good illustrations and inspiration for Narrators, whether they adopt the broad strokes or incorporate the smaller details into their games.

Layout & Graphic Design

Never Going Home’s body text is presented in a moderate point, old-style Roman typeface that’s easy to read against the background textures, which are weathered and stained paper. Supporting documents, antagonist stat blocks, and some illustrations are presented as overlaid sheets, and these use different typefaces to create the impression of being hand- or typewritten. Paging through the book feels like looking through a dossier or facsimile of historic documents.

Narrow margins and leading often create a crowded page gestalt. © 2020 Wet Ink Games. Used with permission.

Throughout the book, levels of subheadings aren’t differentiated typographically, which can be a bit confusing, and leading between headings and sections is sometimes selectively omitted. The margins are also very, very lean, with some text on the inner edges becoming difficult to read.

Altogether, the pages tend to feel rather crowded. This can be interpreted as emulating to the cramped, claustrophobic conditions of the trenches and foxholes or as a nod toward wartime paper scarcity—hence the need to fit as much onto a page as possible—but to me, it seems more like a miscalculation than an intentional choice.

Organization & Usability

Never Going Home opens with a brief overview of its concept and the nature of RPGs before delving directly into combat mechanics, Whispers, character creation, then proceeding to the more lore-heavy sections. After more detailed guidance for Narrators, it concludes with a set of three prefabbed adventures.

The book includes a table of contents, but this tends to be rather broad. There are no discrete or explicit chapter divisions or breaks within the text, and the minimal margins leave no room for running headers. Though there is room for an index, one isn’t present.

At over 100 pages, all of which are relatively homogeneous—blocks of text against an old-paper ground with mostly monochrome illustrations—the book could have used some supporting apparatuses and more visually distinctive markers to assist navigation. It’s certainly usable, but it’s not the most efficient rulebook I’ve come across.

Art

Charles Ferguson-Avery’s illustrations beautifully capture the game’s tone and ethos. The compositions occasionally delve into gore and mutilation, giving a taste of trench warfare’s body horror without excessively dwelling in it. Instead, the art focuses on the dehumanizing and isolating effects.

You won’t see a single human face throughout the book. Gas masks are ubiquitous in Never Going Home, and it’s an appropriate choice; the gas mask—alongside the battle tank—emblematizes the way technology changed combat during World War I. Throughout the book, different designs are represented, and this variety maintains a consistent visual motif without becoming repetitive or dull.

You’ll occasionally see an eye or an ungloved palm, but for the most part, the soldiers depicted lack a sense of interiority and instead feel like there is no longer anyone inside the uniform, just the uniform itself. In the absence of facial expressions, stance and posture speak volumes when conveying attitude and affect. Overall, the figures’ humanness most often comes purely from their frame and proportions—but even this can be deceiving.

Antagonists like cultists, the disfigured, rot breeders, and others are superficially indistinguishable from human soldiers. Monsters like the trench gremlins are humanoid but with distorted or malformed proportions. The trenchstalker in particular has a humanoid frame, but the similarity ends there; its eyeless, elongated head is all mouth, and this emphasis on a single vaguely human (but distinctly predatory) feature at the expense of others creates a strong sense of uncanny similarity that is alien and unsettling.

On the other side, human soldiers often carry fetishes and tomes, display runes carved into their sabers and rifles (and even flesh), and bear other occult accessories. Some previously human characters like veil priests even sport additional eye lenses on their masks, suggesting the visage beneath has warped and mutated—but leaving room for us to imagine precisely how.

The overlap and blending of the military and the esoteric, the human and the grotesque create excellent visual appeal and truly complement the game’s concept. But beyond that, they re-emphasize how easy it is for a human to become a monster when acting as an agent of powers greater than themselves.

Ferguson-Avery’s artwork brilliantly complements the game’s tone and themes. © 2020 Wet Ink Games. Used with permission.

Conclusions

Despite some material issues, I still really like Never Going Home. (If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have spent hours writing this review.) The book has some flaws, but I think it uses a solid middle-weight system, the concept is compelling, and the creative writing and art support it quite well. It’s not going to suit everyone’s tastes, but if it aligns with yours, Never Going Home is worth your time and money.


You can purchase digital and print copies of Never Going Home and its line of supplements—including custom playing cards—at DriveThruRPG.

Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.

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