Words by David C. Obenour
Humanity has long engaged in unspeakable horrors. Self-inflicted evils and tragedies that cut deep to our being. However, this time is different. The sum total of pain and suffering and violence caused at The Battle of the Somme has reverberated beyond our own plane of existence. The Veil is torn and through it a mirrored parade of unspeakable horrors have begun to pour. Can we survive this new incursion amidst the War of Nations? If we do, can we retain any of our humanity?
Never Going Home is a role-playing game set in these muck-filled trenches and deadly yards of no-man’s land. A party-focused system, the violent realities demand a story told beyond the perspective of the unfortunate and fragile individuals. Following the core book’s publication, expansions and campaigns have continued to be released, telling a fuller story and touching all corners of a world at war.
Off Shelf: World War I is a fascinating and horrifying chapter in history. Can you talk about some of your own interest in it? Are there any particular stories from your reading and studies that still resonate with you?
Matthew Orr: I come at the period from a couple different angels. As an American it doesn’t really have the cultural impact here as it does in Europe. The war looms behind everything from the Dada art scene to the works of Tolkien. It really set up the rest of 20th Century politics as well. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to all the modern borders in the Middle East and the war is the start of the Russian Revolution. Whenever you look at European history and culture, you’re looking at shadows of the First World War. It’s such a dynamic period so it’s very easy to get engaged. My sister, Sarah Orr Aten, has a whole shelf of books on the war and we used to chat about the events and the what ifs. Since she’s a writer we asked her to write all of the fiction in the book; all the letters and journal entries and telegrams.
When I think about the war, it’s mostly the images that stick with me. The modern images of the battlefields in France – all green now with grass and all the bomb holes turned into little ponds – are terribly haunting to me. The paintings of Otto Dix and William Orpen are of note because they capture the trauma of the events. The people who were there still couldn’t process how it could have happened. Supposedly, Opren’s painting The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, was originally painted with the faces of dead soldiers reflected in the mirrors behind all the signers. He was an official painter so the government made him paint over those faces. But they are there. Even if they wouldn’t have been there, the idea of all those essentially wasted lives is in the image for me.
OS: In incorporating real life experienced horrors with more fantastical ones, is there a sensitivity you felt responsible for to not glorify or make light of situations? How did that inform Never Going Home?
MO: I certainly don’t want to belittle the experiences of the people who lived the real history by adding spookums. I believe that all good art about war is anti-war. I saw that from the beginning in Charles Ferguson-Avery’s art. Before there was a game, there was his art which was explicit in rendering the horrors of war as literal monsters. His art was a strong statement about losing your humanity in the midst of the inhumanity of war and that became a central theme of Never Going Home.
OS: How do you feel adding elements of fantasy to that horror helps us more fully understand some of what happened during World War I?
MO: War is something pretty unimaginable to me as someone who has never worn a uniform or lived in an actual war zone. I think that’s the same for a lot of people in the TTRPG space. The standard nerd is probably more familiar with demons, zombies, and magic than with the typical horrors of WWI, the trench foot, mustard gas, marching, whistling shells. By presenting both kinds of horrors together I hope we’ve not only make an exciting game, but also given players a slight tinge of what the real thing must have been like.
OS: Part of how Never Going Home is played is that players are Party Focused as individual characters enter and exit play with some regularity. How do you hope this dynamic plays out in gamers’ experience?
MO: There are a lot of games which give players the hero experience. It can be fun to go up against a pack of monsters and kill them all. We wanted the opposite experience for this game. Characters can be heroic, but they are very soft and death is permanent. The idea is that the PCs in the Unit still have to get the mission done. They have to keep going even if some of them die. I think in the ideal situation a group of players will look back after a completed mission and feel some of that sadness which the people who survived the war felt. We did it, but we lost 3 or 7 or 10 comrades to do it. Was it worth it? Why were we asked to do this? Do the planners of the war know what this is costing us? That heavy feeling could be wrapped into future missions if the players and Narrators want that sort of melancholy in their game.
OS: Another unique aspect of the game play for Never Going Home is using a deck of playing cards the emotional and mental experience of characters. What inspired you to use a deck and what do you see as its main strengths for the game?
MO: That part came from Brandon Aten, my co-creator and business partner. He wanted to make a game system accessible to people who don’t have a set of polyhedral dice. But most people can find a few D6 or a deck of cards. It wasn’t too many steps from that to the idea of using both dice and cards. It also reflects what soldiers at the front would have had. So it provides an entry point and some theme. In the game the cards are a resource. They represent the humanity your character is holding onto in the form of memories from the past – usually good things from before the war began. You want to spend cards to power spells and negate damage and a few other things, but you don’t want to spend your cards because it represents what makes your character who they are. It’s a tension. Plus when the Narrator asks you to describe what you are choosing to forget, it can make for memorable moments of roleplay.
OS: I imagine a lot is left on the cutting room floor for a variety of reasons with a game such as this. Do you have a favorite thing that wasn’t able to find its way into the game?
MO: There’s always dozens of ideas which don’t get developed, but there isn’t much that got written and then cut. We let our writers go over their ideal word counts all the time so they could get more into their missions.
OS: You recently published three expansions for Never Going Home and I wanted to touch on each of them. First, Tears in the Sea is set on a German U-19 boat in the North Sea. What unique opportunities and challenges presented themselves in such a confined and claustrophobic setting?
MO: First off, let me congratulate lead writer Tristan Zimmerman as he’s the one who defined that book, worked out the rules, and gave it that tone. All of the new Campaign Dossiers have six missions which relate and follow on from each other. For Tears…, the U-boat becomes a major NPC the sailors have to interact with throughout the campaign. It’s horribly merged with the flesh of its former crew, so the PCs have it in their faces all the time how fragile their situation is. This is a powerful weapon of war, but how long can they survive interacting with this cursed living machine? More on the challenge side we had to work out a more robust vehicle combat rules to make ship-to-ship fighting make sense. There are battle stations aboard U-19 so every player can take actions in a fight and impact the outcome.
OS: Next is Bones in the Dust with British and colonial forces invading the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli. What about this theater intrigued you to explore further through Never Going Home?
MO: There are two big reasons. One is that our divergence point with the outbreak of magic is firmly set at the first Battle of the Somme in summer 1916. The Gallipoli invasion was the year before. It was an opportunity to explore what game before the rise of magical awfulness. There are a lot more human antagonists and part of the story is discovering how deep the roots of magic go. Lead writer Irvin Jackson took the helm to give us that story.
The other big thing is it gets the players out of the trenches in France where so much of the famous scenes of the war are set. We wanted to do that with all the Dossiers, but with this one in particular. Gallipoli is where the Australian and New Zealand forces made a name for themselves within the British Dominion. France had Vietnamese soldiers there. The Ottoman Empire itself was very diverse as well. That theater is a real showcase for how much the First World War was a global war.
OS: Lastly is Blood on the Snow with the Russian army out on eastern front. How does the political and social upheaval that preceded the Russian Revolution add a new dynamic to Never Going Home?
MO: The Russian Revolution is a personal interest of mine. The Revolution is so big, the war almost becomes a footnote to the story of the end of the Romanovs and the rise of the Bolsheviks. We’ve always said Never Going Home is supposed to focus on the soldiers and leave everything else to other games. I may have allowed things to stray a little bit from that focus with this Dossier. Soldiers were a big part of how the Revolution happened, though. What Crystal Mazur did as lead writer pushed the forests and Russian folk monsters to the fore and that worked out great.
I think a big question behind Never Going Home is to ask – who is giving the orders? This is explored a little in Bones, but I think Blood starts to confront that question more explicitly. The soldiers start with monsters on the front lines, but moving into the interior and closer to the centers of power, there are still monsters. Why are the top brass and politicians continuing the war despite dark magic? What do they want out of it? I hope with Blood players get to be in that mix of power and corruption and see what choices they would make.
OS: Charles Ferguson-Avery has done the art for all Never Going Home books. What about their style resonates with you? Do any particular images come to mind when you think about their contributions? What about them stands out?
MO: As I mentioned, a good chunk of the art in the core book existed first and inspired the game. There’s a scruffy, almost dirty quality to the lines which I personally love. Applying that look to the paper texture backgrounds so the game book begins to look like a sketch book came much later in the process, but the art is perfect for it. The other thing which is so fitting is the gas masks. Everyone has them – except for a few images in Blood. Instead of human eyes you can connect with, you get these big haunted glass circles. It’s creepy and off-putting. From the first, those images set people up to feel like their our humanity is under threat because there’s no one else to look at.
There’s a painting on page 3 of the core book. It shows a weary figure with a rifle cresting a pile of rubble. The figure has a gas mask, but the way Charlie drew it it has bags under the eyes. It conveys such a sense of tiredness. The place in the art is not a place you want to be.