This post is part of the Dyvers Favourite Game Project
People complain that EVERWAY was too politically correct, and speaking as a guy whose published ouvre is perhaps littered with more sodomy jokes than are strictly necessary, they may have a point. But that minor flaw (if it is one) is more than overweighed by EVERWAY’s brilliance of concept, not to mention art that is just gob-smack stunning. No game since has looked this good, full stop.
Everway arrived on the crest of the Magic the Gathering wave in the mid-90s in a huge box stuffed full of art cards and nicely designed character sheets.
Aaaaand… it flopped. But why? Well, it was expensive compared to the perfect-bound offerings. The tacit association with MtG probably didn’t help consumers decide either — one has Planeswalkers, the other Spherewalkers, which may have led people to think this was Magic: the Roleplaying Game (and leads to questions like: did you need a collection of Magic cards to play?). I heard that WotC refused to allow sellers to carry MtG if they would not also carry Everway, though that could be apocryphal. I do know that the extra vision cards were sold as random boosters, which made sense for MtG when players would buy and trade, but for a roleplaying game where the GM often provides all the moving parts at the table the market for collectable vision cards is already vanishingly small.
I picked up my first set for pennies in a remaindered book shop.
So commercially it may have been a questionable venture, and something that would not have happened had WotC not been making absurd sums from the CCG market. These are my reasons why I’m grateful that it did happen, because Everway offers technical innovations as well as stunning presentation.
Everway is a game of Heroes who travel to other Spheres and Realms via Gates, doing Quests along the way. So it’s a fantasy game with elements of Sliders, Fredrick Pohl’s Gateway, maybe a bit of Quantum Leap and The Littlest Hobo. Well, maybe.
Everway’s brilliance comes from a few very tightly interrelated game objects. Here’s a C-Map that covers the basics of Everway:
- Dark blue nodes are things that are actual on-the-table objects, including the Fortune Deck and the Vision
- Light blue nodes are in-game concepts
- Karma, Drama and Fortune are the three kinds of resolution, colour-coded
- The orange nodes are elements with numerological weight
Everway is billed as “Visionary Roleplaying” for its use of images and symbols. The more obvious parts are the images in Vision Cards and the Fortune Deck, as well as the character sheets. Feast your eyes:
A bit less obvious is the symbolic use of numbers — the repetition of the number 3 for example:
- Three modes of resolution (Karma, Drama and Fortune)
- Three kinds of powers (Frequent, Major, Versatile)
- Three-stage divinations (Virtue, Fault and Fate)
Whether Tweet intended this or not, the repetition around the number 3 has a mythic resonance to it. Likewise the use of four elements in the character sheet has a numerological quality. And notice also that heroes are constructed around both the number 3 (for their metaphysical Virtue, Fault and Fate) and the number 4 (for their earthly Fire, Air, Water and Earth scores).
But deeper and more resonant still is the way the Fortune Deck is central to the entire game — as a metaphysical principle, in the in-game fiction, as a tool on the table for the players and GM to generate random results.
If all this seems a bit New Age for some… well, yes. Everway is like that. It is perhaps the ur-hippy game — laced with symbolism and so politically correct it hurts. But try not to hold that against it.
Vision Cards and Open Questions
Everway’s branded Vision Cards have art on the front and a set of provocative questions on the back.
The questions on the back of The Yellow Man by Jeffrey Catherine Jones are
Where is this person? What, if anything, does he see in the water?
What is the most important thing he has ever done?
What does this place mean to him?
These questions are directed at both the GM and the players. Typically the players pick 5 cards during the Vision Stage of character creation, and the GM will use more cards during adventures. With 90 cards in the base set and a further 90 sold separately, and 4 questions per card, that’s 720 questions to kick off some creative thought. Pretty good value, eh?
The Vision Cards are obviously fundamental to Everway’s Visionary Roleplaying. But they’re also consistent with another principle: asking open questions. Questions feature throughout the game — in the last stage of character generation, and throughout the book in Tweet’s advice to GMs.
If you’ve played any indie games from the last decade you probably take asking questions for granted. And it would be silly to suggest that the games that preceded Everway didn’t raise questions of their own. But what Everway does is teach these really useful techniques, putting the use of art and open questioning at the heart of the game.
If that were the only thing that Everway did it alone would be worthy of praise. But there’s more…
The Fortune Deck
Any game can just swap out dice for cards. The genius of the Fortune Deck is the way it repeats as a theme throughout the game, both as a thing on the table and an object in the game world:
- It’s a ubiquitous divination tool — every culture in every Realm has a version of the deck
- It represents a cosmic principle of a perfect cycle of 36 cards
- …which is then reproduced imperfectly on Earth because an unnamed chaos deity stole one of the cards, creating a void in its place…
- …that void is called the Usurper, and each Realm has a different card that fills the 36th slot — based on the themes of the Realm
- Each Realm and each Hero has a Virtue, Fault and Fate — a three-card divination using the cards, with the Fate representing a crisis or decision point in the future
- The deck can be used for six-card divinations too
- And of course, it’s used for resolving skill checks (etc) based on Fortune.
So what we’ve got here is an object on the table that the players are looking at and interacting with, that also reinforces the spiritual and philosophical elements of the game, and is a recurrent motif throughout each Realm that the PCs visit. That’s kind of beautiful.
The cards are beautiful, too:
Functionally the cards are like the Major Arcana in the Tarot, with upright and reversed meanings. When you draw one (for a Fortune check, for example) you interpret the outcome based on the card (and taking other traits into account, like the PC’s Element scores).
There are a lot of opportunities for the in-fiction uses of the deck. Like, what interesting new form can the Fortune Deck take? Like a massive clock tower in the centre of a city, proclaiming hourly divinations? What if the cards are drawn by putting your hand into a box with a scorpion inside? How would the population respond to such readings? How easily can they be ignored?
The Fortune Deck is also the constant that the Heroes can observe, when everything else changes as they travel through different Gates. The PCs see the Fortune Deck objectively, but to the people of the many Realms they pass through, their way of interacting with the deck is the Way.
I’m sure this homogeneous new ager stuff will turn a few people off. Personally I dig the whole cosmic patterns repeating on a human scale, but it could easily be pushed to the background. Whichever you prefer, you can’t deny the elegance of it.
Heroes, Elements and Powers
Everway’s heroes are based mechanically on a four-element-with-speciality system, which is something I found in the Ghostbusters RPG and have used for a few one-off games over the years because it’s dead simple for players to engage with.
What really works for me is the implied balance between different pairs of elements as mental/physical, active/passive etc. It’s also the antithesis of the long lists of skills (GURPS, BRP) — long lists of skills tend to imply a small number of things the character can do and a larger number that they can’t, whereas the elements imply that everyone is capable of the same action, just some are better than others.
Then there’s the character sheet itself:
That’s a threefold metaphysical (or divine) layer, and a fourfold physical layer — something that appears in occult imagery such as these diagrams from Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine:
I’m not suggesting you should read too much into the character sheet, but it’s a pleasing design. The total number of elements are also low, meaning they stay within the constraints of working memory.
The other part I want to mention is Powers. The effects are pretty much what you’d expect from a fantasy RPG, but it’s the way they’re costed that’s particularly cunning. If the power is Frequent and can be used often in the game, that’s a point; if it’s Major because it can influence a scene strongly that’s a point; and if it’s Versatile because it can be used in different kinds of scenes, that’s a point. With 20 points to spread amongst Elements a 3-point power is a big deal, but then it should be. And this system gives a method for player and GM to negotiate over those costs and make sure they’re both on the same page regarding what the player wants and what limits apply.
Fluff and World Building
Everway is more of a premise than an actual setting. There is the sample Realm of “Roundwander” and its city of Everway, which gets a large chunk of text in the playing handbook even before we get to the character generation section. It goes on at length about its many families, locations, politics (such as the adoption of family name along the female bloodline). But Everway the city is simply the nexus of gates for travel to other Realms — according to the book most spheres have two gates, the entry and exit points for the proto-deity “The Walker” that created them, but Roundwander by comparison has seventy-one gates. I guess Everway the city was expected to be the hub from where the Heroes would strike out to other spheres, and had the game line lived on we’d have seen supplements around city and family politics.
It is politically correct, and also bit twee with its hippy naming conventions (“Tribes of the Sun Lands”, “Roundwander”, “The Clashing Hills” etc.). I guess some people will be put off and others will say these elements make the setting more mythic and dream-like.
World design is mostly topological. Distance and scale aren’t really considerations, and the main focus is themes and significance. Still, I think Realm creation is genius, both for simplicity and the way it engages with both heroes and the fortune deck. That said, while there is an implied method to world creation it’s kind of scattered throughout the books. Here’s the summary:
- The Realm will have a Virtue, Fault and Fate, exactly like a Hero — a neat callback to character creation.
- The Realm will also have a theme in the form of the Usurper (for example, the Walker’s Pyramid in Everway city). The book advises the GM to pick a vision card to show the players when the Usurper is drawn (since it can’t be shuffled in).
- Finally there’s a Realm-building template that adds colour like “Economy”, “Magic”, “Foods” etc.
The Fate of the Realm provides the crisis or decision that affects the Realm (and the Quest) and the Usurper ties the Realm directly into the Fortune Deck — both of these are mechanically supported by the game props. But strangely both of these are presented as optional, tucked away in various corners of the text while the main focus is on the Realm’s food and politics and what kind of domestic animals they keep.
Karma, Drama and Fortune
I should mention Everway’s threefold system of Karma/Drama/Fortune for resolving tasks, which is often cited by proponents of the threefold model (e.g. in the essay System Does Matter).
- Karma is about work; if the task is something the character ought to be able to succeed at, they will succeed. If it’s not, they won’t.
- Drama is about opportunity for drama and plot; if it’s good to use the moment to foreshadow or deliver a dramatic impact, allow success or failure on that basis.
- Fortune is about fate; if you want to submit success or failure to the cosmic will, draw a card.
This isn’t anything new — all Tweet has done is identify and deconstruct the three main techniques that pretty much every GM uses. It’s the thought and attention to detail that makes this section worth reading and taking note.
So, this is Everway. Sadly it’s long out of print, but you can pick up copies on a certain auction site — and if you look around it’s not too hard to piece together the different mechanisms from fan resources around the web. Here I’ll give the Everwayan another shout, as well as point to John’s Everway Site and his Fortune Deck.
I guess I should mention other diceless/narrative games: there’s Amber, and Amber’s spiritual successor Lords of Gossamer and Shadow. And there’s Nobilis, and Heroquest. All of these can be tagged as a sort of mythic narrative game, though none as cohesive as Everway, or as tactile.
Everway makes use of a lot of things we take for granted in indie designs — but it’s not really an indie game. It’s staunchly traditional in the relationship between GM and players — and rather than subvert the traditional mechanisms it uses them quite aggressively. Perhaps that’s its problem — too hippy for the traditional crowd, and not mechanical enough to appeal to indie types, not to mention that it looks a wee bit pretentious. But in the age of diverging approaches to RPGs where the OSR and retroclones, GMless story games and the like, I think it represents a separate genre — a sort of mid-nineties minimalism that I keep coming back to.