Referee’s Bookshelf: Everway

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Everway, whether not it is a good game, is an absolutely gorgeous game. Presented in an inconveniently huge box, with artwork varying from evocatively abstract work to material which was a bit more ordinary for fantasy art but aimed at a much more sober and serious and less pulpy and comic book tone than most RPG art, and coming with not just one but multiple decks of cards, the Everway set is really nicely presented.

But as inviting as that presentation is, and despite having the might of Wizards of the Coast behind it and a name as big as John Tweet’s on the cover, Everway vanished into obscurity. It didn’t help that four months after its publication, Wizards closed their RPG division (this was some two years before they would buy out TSR) and sold off all their RPG properties. It certainly didn’t help that whilst other RPGs from the sold-off portfolio like Ars Magica and Talislanta would find new publishers who would actively support them, Everway‘s subsequent owners don’t seem to have done much with it – so far as I can tell, its current owners are still Gaslight Press, who seem to have fallen into stasis some dozen years ago and done nothing since except regularly pay the fee to keep their website online. But I think the major reason Everway failed is because it’s a curate’s egg. It’s simultaneously extremely traditional and extremely experimental; those looking for an experimental gaming experience will find the traditional aspects of the game hampering, those who look for a more traditional experience will be infuriated by the experimental stuff, and the game’s left and right hemispheres don’t really mesh together sufficiently to create a satisfying and interesting hybrid.

In terms of its assumed setting and premise, Everway reads like an attempt to write “Planescape done right” by someone who dislikes the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system, the Planescape cosmology, the Tony DiTerlizzi aesthetic and the distinctive slang. Player characters are spherewalkers – heroes who, for one reason or another, have the ability to pass through the gates between different spheres (parallel worlds). In each sphere there is one or more realm, defined as an area where a particular set of cosmic forces hold sway. A realm can be as vast as an Empire or as small as a single building, and often realms will have distinctive challenges facing them that call for the intervention of spherewalkers to resolve. A central hub of spherewalker activity is the magnificent city of Everway, which happens to be the capital of a realm containing a conveniently large number of gates to other spheres.

One of the conceits of the setting is that each realm’s destiny is woven by 36 different forces, which are depicted in archetypal form in the Fortune Deck, a tarot-style pack of cards that comes with the game. In a neat twist, back in days of yore a trickster god stole the 36th force, so the 36th card in the deck is the Usurper card; each realm has a different symbol representing a different concept in the seat of the Usurper, which means that the Fortune Deck can be customised to suit the themes of whatever quest the referee wants to run in the realm in question. Likewise, each PC has a characteristic Virtue, Flaw, and Fate – being respectively a benign Fortune card, a malign Fortune card, and a Fortune card dealt on its side so that it could either ultimately manifest in its upright or reversed form, depending on the PC’s actions. When a player character resolves their Fate, they can get a new one dealt, and can also get new Virtues or Flaws if the player feels that by resolving their Fate the PC has grown and changed as a person.

Character creation is based off a simple point-buy system in terms of character’s present-day capabilities, shaped by insights into the character background derived from the Vision Deck – a fat stack of evocative illustrations which are randomly dealt to players for them to interpret to create their character’s backstory. Each Vision card has a set of questions on the back to help players come up with interpretations, though these are prompts to help you if you are stuck rather than essential components of interpreting the card.

Two additional decks of cards seem somewhat more difficult to justify in system terms. The source cards depict scenes from around the city of Everway, which I guess are pretty enough but you get the illustrations and actual explanations in the rulebook. The quest cards seem tied into the sample adventure, Journey to Stonedeep, in that they depict scenes from that and have encounter-appropriate stats on the back, which I guess is nice if you want to show the players scenes from the adventure but may grate on groups that are particularly keen on the whole “theatre of the mind” concept. As far as the quest cards go, I can imagine Wizards considering selling adventures with additional quest cards to suit the themes of the module in question, but I have no idea what they were intending to do with the source cards.

It’s in terms of action resolution where Everway is simultaneously insightful and frustrating. If you only know him from his contributions to Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, you might be surprised to know that in the early 1990s Tweet was on a big rules-light kick; his 1992 release Over the Edge features perhaps one of the sparsest tabletop RPG systems ever sold for money outside of the indie market. Everway, if anything, is even more threadbare, since it doesn’t really have a resolution system as such so much as it presents a discussion of three different philosophies of action resolution, all of which can be used individually or in combination as the GM decrees: Law of Karma, Law of Drama, and Law of Fortune. Law of Karma is when the referee makes a ruling based on the facts; you compare the relevant scores of the people attempting an action, you consider the factors involved in the gameworld, you declare success or failure based on the balance of probabilities. Law of Drama is when the referee makes a ruling based on the needs of the story. Law of Fortune is when the referee draws a Fortune card and incorporates the implications of that card into a ruling.

This almost looks like some sort of Tweety response to one of the various “threefold models” in RPG theory. The rec.games.frp.advocacy threefold of gamism, dramatism, and simulationism (which Ron Edwards would later grab, mutate, and turn into the threefold used by the Forge) wouldn’t really coalesce until 1997 or thereabouts, but it’s entirely believable that the distinct motivations of verisimilitude and internal consistency on the one hand, satisfying storytelling on the other hand, and challenging gameplay on the third hand were known to Tweet since flamewars about which of those is the true heart of the RPG hobby are about as old as the RPG hobby itself. The Law of Karma broadly points you to look at the simulated world and the factors in it and decide what would logically happen next given the facts available to you, but simulation is only important in Everway when the referee says it is. Likewise, the Law of Drama is obviously a story-oriented concern, but again, it’s only important when the GM says it is. The Law of Fortune introduces a random factor into the mix, but it’s a random factor filtered through the GM’s interpretation of it.

The common thread between all three laws is a heavy reliance on GM fiat. Make no mistake about it: Everway is drenched in mid-1990s attitudes to tabletop RPGs. This was the height of the GM-as-auteur, players-as-audience movement which both the back-to-the-dungeon movement of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition and the OSR and the radical tamperings with the tabletop RPG format offered up by indie RPGs and story games can be seen as a direct reaction to. Everway very much takes the position that the players are the recipients of the referee’s magnificent story, and are lucky enough to be allowed to mildly shape it by their actions. As written, the action of the three Laws is entirely in the hands of the GM, and worst of all, there’s no onus on the GM to declare which of the Laws, if any, are being used to adjudicate a particular action either before or after the ruling takes place. Unless your referee has the habit of mumbling “Okay, let’s Law of Karma this one…” under their breath, you could well never know what Laws were being used in which situations – even if you see the referee take a Fortune card, you don’t know what other Laws are being used in conjunction with it.

There’s a phrase used by people who like very detailed systems used called “Magical Tea Party”. It expresses the frustration they often feel with looser game systems which require a lot of referee rulings in play, because they feel that those systems often come down to trying to persuade the referee to allow particular actions, or trying to read the referee and judge what sort of actions they are likely to give generous odds to – at which point, they argue, you are no longer playing a rigorously designed game so much as you are just making shit up as you go along like a small child playing at having a tea party with their stuffed animals. (This is linked to but not quite the same as “Mother May I?”, a shibboleth used by people who are very anxious about the idea of any GM fiat being exercised in a fame at all.) To a certain extent, I actually don’t mind that as part of an RPG and would go so far as to say I actually enjoy it – I like it when GMs have a particular style, I think reading that style and creating characters and taking actions that support it is a legitimate tactic for success in a game, and I’d rather players worked to understand and work with referees to do fun things with the rules, rather than using the rules as a constraint on referee and player alike. RPG gameplay is ultimately a conversation, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for players to benefit from being good at that conversation.

At the same time, Everway doesn’t actually offer that conversation. As per the rules as written the referee picks whichever flavour of fiat they prefer and roll with it – either fiat by focusing on in-game elements, or fiat by pointing to the needs of the story, or fiat by pulling out a card and then declaring it means what you want it to mean. Whilst the Law of Fortune should in principle provide a wild card factor (pun 100% intentional), the actual advice associated with it minimises this by encouraging referees to already have some idea of what is going to happen based off the other two Laws before drawing, and using the draw simply to put a particular spin on their decision.

This GM-as-auteur play style is exacerbated by the sample adventure, which makes token efforts towards offering nonlinearity and alternate solutions to the quest in question but undermines almost all of these so it’s a de facto railroad anyway. More or less every alternate route the players could take is explicitly described as being  a bad idea, in some cases solely on the basis that it’d create more work for the referee, so there’s really only one path through to the intended ideal ending and every other route is specifically cited as being highly suboptimal. The general GMing advice (spread between the GM’s book and player’s book, which for some reason contains a bunch of chapters specifically directed to the GM, making a nonsense of the division) is similarly unhelpful.

Everway was supposed to inaugurate a line of Alter Ego games, described in the following terms on the back of the box:

In an Alter Ego game, each player creates an imaginary character. One person, the gamemaster, creates a challenge or quest for these characters to face. Together, you and your friends play out exciting stories and adventures about the characters. Once begun, these stories need never end. Alter Ego games are designed to support beginners and challenge experienced players.

For the most part, the only difference between this definition of an Alter Ego game and a description of traditional RPGs is that “RPG” is not a trademark owned by Wizards of the Coast but Alter Ego, according to the box, is (or at least was in 1995). The last sentence offers a useful distinction though, since Everway simultaneously tries to be all experimental but at the same time is written in such a way that conceivably, someone who had no prior exposure to RPGs could pick up Everway and teach themselves to play from the materials in the box. Given the quality of the refereeing advice and the system which is more of an abstention from having any sort of system beyond blunt GM fiat, they are unlikely to have a very good time.

Experienced groups of capable gamers who have good chemistry and find the setting material and aesthetic inspirational lwill probably be able to use this system to have fun, but that isn’t really high praise; I’ve never had a bad time playing an RPG with Dan and Shimmin and the folk we usually game with, but sometimes that’s been despite the system we’ve been wrangling rather than because of it. If played as written, I think most groups will find that the almost complete inability of the players to actually meaningfully engage with the system is frustrating. (This is a game which has no qualms about giving fairly clear guidelines on what different levels of magical prowess can accomplish, but then telling the referee they should feel free to have PCs’ supernatural abilities not work if it would be inconvenient for the plot.)

The tragedy of Everway is that I don’t think Tweet entirely understood how revolutionary the Fortune Deck might have been. He seems wedded to the idea that the different cards have invariably positive or negative connotations, but with a little thought that’s far from clear-cut. For instance, the Cockatrice is consistently described as a negative card because its connotation is Corruption – but surely if the PCs are trying to bribe a guard, the Cockatrice is precisely what they want to show up? Furthermore, it’s interesting to see an experiment in qualitative rather than quantitative action resolution – action resolution not by comparing numbers, but by being presented with a particular theme or concept and coming up with a resolution that embodies that – but at the same time it’s frustrating to see that experiment suppressed by the Laws of Karma and Drama, which respectively represent quantitative action resolution and arbitrary action resolution.

A proposed tweak to the system: have people’s scores in the different attributes represent a number of draws from the Fortune Deck. To resolve actions, have them draw an appropriate number of cards from the deck and pick one to present to the referee. Have the referee resolve the action based on the card provided to them. Even though this is a system which is still very open to masses and masses of GM fiat, it would at least give the player some input into action resolution. Alternately, if you really like the idea of the players simply describing their actions and all the system stuff, such as it is, being resolved by the referee, just stick rigidly with the Laws of Karma or Drama and be open enough to the players’ own ideas and contributions to mutate your preplanned story accordingly. As it stands, the Fortune Deck is a potent tool which the referee is specifically advised not to use to its full potential.

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5 thoughts on “Referee’s Bookshelf: Everway

  1. “There’s a phrase used by people who like very detailed systems used called “Mother May I?”.”

    I’d always thought that was less about detailed/abstract as conflict resolution/task resolution. In the (I think) original livejournal posts by the Lisbon Gamer, the notion is that any game in which the consequences of PC actions are not determined *100% by random dice rolling* is a “mother may I” system.

    To be fair, there is a very, very small extent to which this is true in that in any game where the GM acts as a referee, the question of whether something does or does not work depends on whether the GM allows it to work (which is not – contrary to what some people would claim – the same as whether the GM *wants* it to work), but speaking personally I’d rather know that my actions succeeded or failed because a rational human being decided that it made sense for them to succeed or fail (even if said human being occasionally makes a bum call) than because I successfully manipulated a wholly abstract dice system that ultimately made no reference to the thing I was actually trying to do.

    it’s been years since I looked at Everway, but I seem to remember the “drama” aspect of Karma/Drama/Fortune slightly differently – that it meant something like “variable features of the situation” rather than specifically “what’s best for the story” – opposed to Karma, which was more explicitly *concrete* things about the situation. like the characters’ stats. But this might be a retcon that came in when the terms were incorporated into Forge language (and if so, to be fair, I think it’s a positive retcon).

    1. I’d always thought that was less about detailed/abstract as conflict resolution/task resolution. In the (I think) original livejournal posts by the Lisbon Gamer, the notion is that any game in which the consequences of PC actions are not determined *100% by random dice rolling* is a “mother may I” system.

      I haven’t read the Lisbon Gamer’s posts (you got a link?) so there may well have been linguistic drift between the thing being coined and my exposure to it. I’ve seen it used elsewhere to slam the OSR “rulings not rules” philosophy, which is where I got my understanding from it, though the people using it in that sense might be misapplying it or putting their own meaning on it.

      it’s been years since I looked at Everway, but I seem to remember the “drama” aspect of Karma/Drama/Fortune slightly differently – that it meant something like “variable features of the situation” rather than specifically “what’s best for the story” – opposed to Karma, which was more explicitly *concrete* things about the situation. like the characters’ stats. But this might be a retcon that came in when the terms were incorporated into Forge language (and if so, to be fair, I think it’s a positive retcon).

      Yeah, no, the books are very clear that Law of Drama is about making the decision based on the needs of the story; the variable IC features of the situation would be under Law of Karma (because that doesn’t just include character stats and resources but also stuff like how clever the players’ plan is and what variable factors they have marshalled to their cause).

      I can completely believe someone on the Forge redefined this stuff that way in order to get a more useful terminology out of what was originally proposed… aha! On checking, it turns out that someone at the Forge actually quoted the relevant bit in a thread:

      When you, as gamemaster, apply the law of drama, the needs of the plot determine the outcome of events. As in a novel or play, events proceed in such a way as to make the plot and story more engaging and enjoyable. The hero succeeds if doing so helps the plot. The hero fails if that helps the plot.

      That’s about as cut-and-dried a statement as you can get. (Note that Ron goes on in that thread to say he explicitly tossed out Tweet’s definitions and substituted his own.)

      To be honest, I have sympathy with you misremembering, because the Karma/Drama/Fortune thing as presented in Everway is staggeringly crap and it’s mildly startling to see Tweet wheel it out. I find it notable that even the Everway fan in that thread (Supplanter) concedes that the game only has the mildest of concessions to game-y stuff and GMing it really comes down to choosing between the simulationist and dramatist resolution at any particular decision point.

      (It warms my heart to see Supplanter owning Ron so hard in that thread too. “Your reaction to the word plot is idiosyncratic. That you claim to find it a meaningless concept can’t determine its utility to people who find it a meaningful concept – which group I would argue can be fairly characterized as “most people.” Specifically, that you claim to find “plot” a meaningless concept cannot be taken to mean that Tweet found it a meaningless concept at the time he was writing GM advice for Everway.” Daaaaaaaaaaaamn, call an ambulance because someone’s going to the Burn Ward.)

    2. Ahahaha, wait up, I was wrong about the bit of terminology I was thinking of. I meant “Magical Tea Party”, which is how rude people on some sites characterise rules sets lighter than their preferred ones.

  2. Pingback: Fun? Sure, Oui! « Refereeing and Reflection

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