The EverLOLing

The Everlasting is an RPG – or rather, a series of RPGs, detailing a setting referred to as The Secret World, in which various supernatural entities contend against each other in the shadows of modern-day society. All of the Everlasting core books seem to claim to have some material copyrighted in 1994, but so far as I can make out none were actually published until The Book of the Living came out in 1997. (Two other cores came out in 1998 – Book of the Light and Book of the Spirits – whilst The Book of the Fantastical wouldn’t come out until 2004, after Steven Brown sold Visionary Entertainment to a new investor.) Based on how American copyright law works (in particular, they do a weird thing of having an actual copyright registry, which many countries do without), I suspect what happened was that Steven registered his copyright in his notes for The Everlasting in 1994 – possibly to provide an evidential basis of ownership – and then took 3 years to bring out the new core book, which given that it’s got production standards better than most small-to-midsize press RPGs of the era isn’t too surprising and in fact represents pretty good going on his part.

The first core book in the series is The Book of the Unliving, which as the title implies presents a take on the setting focused around (and assuming that you will be playing) an undead creature like a reanimated corpse or one of several varieties of vampire.

So far, so World of Darkness ripoff, right? That impression would only be deepened if you happen to notice that the game is billed on its interior title page as Steven Brown’s The Everlasting; for most this would provide a “Who is this guy and why do we care that this is his work?” moment reminiscent of C.J. Carella’s Witchcraft, but some would spot that this is the same Steven C. Brown who penned a bunch of sourcebooks for White Wolf in the mid-1990s.

But this would be selling The Everlasting short. Witchcraft presented a sort of World of Darkness heartbreaker where everything felt mild and toned down, which made it uninspiring but at least meant that it backed off from some of the more self-indulgent habits of 1990s White Wolf. The Everlasting goes in the opposite direction – it’s World of Darkness turned up to 11, with a vastly overinflated sense of its own importance and cultural significance that makes Vampire‘s waffling about how it was rekindling a tradition of oral storytelling from Caveman Times seem downright humble.

Indeed, the introductory chapters make it clear that Steven has taken the White Wolf Kool-Aid and not only drank it, but thought it was too flavourless and decided to neck it straight out of the bottle rather than going for the diluted stuff White Wolf were handing out. Some of Brown’s rhetoric seems cribbed directly from the White Wolf playbook. When introducing the concept of storytelling, he repeats the same “Oral storytelling is a tradition from Caveman Times that technology is trying to destroy!” myth which seemed risible enough at the time and appears absolutely ridiculous now that Twitter and Facebook have created massively popular global platforms for storytelling, rumour-mongering, and bullshit where everyone has a microphone. In discussing roleplaying, he straight-facedly rolls out the whole “roll-playing” line to dismiss other styles of game and tries to suggest that The Everlasting is unique in avoiding it, which given the existence of the World of Darkness line is outright ballsy. He even has White Wolf’s contempt for system, to the point where he dismisses the numbers and information noted on the character sheet as “boring” and hyping up English 101 lessons about story structures (the whole Escalation/Conflict/Denouement deal) as part of the whole story things without actually approaching anything resembling narrativism in the game system which might help ensure such structures are reflected in play.

But he takes it a bit further. For instance, there’s the idea of having PCs held communally, rather than people having their own PC they consistently play, and this is explicitly laid out as something which is meant to help make it easier to run high-stakes games where PCs die – though this would tend to be because making the PCs communal mean that you don’t identify with or care about any particular PC as closely as you would if they were exclusively yours, which I kind of feel hurts engagement and immersion. This seems especially counter-productive when The Everlasting seems intent to be not just a mere game, but a profound personal experience for its participants.

You see, The Everlasting isn’t just an RPG, though it does talk up roleplaying. It isn’t just a storytelling game, though it does talk up storytelling. No, The Everlasting bills itself as the Interactive Legendmaking Experience, and Brown makes a serious bid to present this “Legendmaking” thing of his as a higher-order activity built on a foundation of roleplaying plus storytelling, just as White Wolf liked to present storytelling as what roleplayers did when they stopped mucking about in dungeons and were ready to do something serious. Like anyone who talks utter, complete shit about mythology and legend, Brown relies a lot on Joseph Campbell, and tries to present engagement with The Everlasting as not merely a rewarding hobby activity, but an actual honest to goodness Hero’s Journey on the part of the individual participants. (In fact, reading Campbell is cited as being a useful first step in engaging with Legendmaking.) This is bound up with the idea of using the game to develop your Personal Mythology, which is depicted as being something very unique and individual (though apparently it always ends up including vampires and magic and ghouls and stuff, because in common with many White Wolf writers Brown has a very unimaginative take on what constitutes imagination).

The Everlasting,” we are told, “is the ritual by which you can experience mythology and discover how it applies to your own life.” Apparently, through storytelling you can “even gain practical wisdom if you know how to look for it and apply it. You stand at the gate of dreams and hold the key within your own mind.”

In fact, not only is Legendmaking an option in The Everlasting, but you have a positive responsibility to include it. “Once you enter into the realm of mythic possibilities it becomes your duty to transcend the mundane, to create your own legendmaking experiences and assiat with those of your fellow participants.” Beyond all this fluff, Legendmaking seems to mostly involve treating the game as an allegory of your own life and gaining some therapeutic self-discovery benefit from it, like in that IT Crowd episode where Moss is running D&D and throws in an NPC analogue of Roy’s ex-girlfriend so he can get some much-needed closure, except nobody is laughing here and Brown literally tries to make the case that gaming takes you into a magical higher state of consciousness from which the artistic value of the Legendmaking experience is derived.

All this is dropped on you within the introductory chapter, mind. I am 99% sure that The Everlasting was not anyone’s first RPG, but if it was they must have come away with a really strange impression of the hobby.

In some respects the setting does have some clear distinctions between it and the World of Darkness. The supernaturals of the world are generally known as the Eldritch; those who happen to be immortal, by one definition or another, are the titular Everlasting. The range of Eldritch and/or Everlasting on the table is actually broader than the supernaturals available in the World of Darkness, to a large extent because the game line isn’t actually meant to be primarily rooted in horror – you’ve also got dragons shapeshifted into human form, dwarves, knights of the round table and other such whimsical options on the table. Unfortunately, by kicking off the line with the book with all the vampires and other undead, Brown more or less doomed the line to look like much more of a direct White Wolf ripoff than it already was.

Another distinction is that, even more so than WitchcraftThe Everlasting seems to have been designed to be inherently crossover-happy. You see, in the Secret World the various Eldritch have become highly perturbed by a mysterious event referred to as the Death Knell, which is bringing the universe to a point of crisis. Demons have infested the Astra (think the Umbra of Werewolf or Mage with the serial numbers filed off), and threaten both the denizens of the Secret World and the residents of the mundane world. In response, groups of diverse Everlasting types known as Fellowships are forming as adventuring parties to tackle the crisis. The thing which marks the border between the Secret World and the Real World of everyday life is the Reverie, something between an elevated state of consciousness (accessible via mystical means, intense concentration, drugs, mental illness, etc.), and the more time you spend there the more you are drawn into the Secret World. The World itself and the Astra have been badly shaken by the abrupt disappearance of over half of the daevas, a race of Everlasting with precognitive powers who it is rumoured foresaw the coming of the demons and mounted a pre-emptive attack in the Astra in a doomed bid to try to stop them. And Eldritch from all over the world feel a pull bringing them to North America, which (in a move doubling down on the often US-centric assumptions of World of Darkness) is set to be the battleground for the conflict to come.

The three character types on offer here consist of Ghuls, vampires, and revenants (reanimated corpses). The character generation system cleaves very closely to the stats, skills, backgrounds and disciplines breakdown in Vampire, with a very familiar pattern to the stats and skills for anyone used to the World of Darkness games.

In fact, the character creation process is so clearly a riff on the World of Darkness one that it ends up creating the impression that Brown literally isn’t aware of any RPG systems other than the Storyteller system – a classic trait of heartbreakers. One interesting tweak is that you do have the option of drawing cards or rolling dice to randomise the number of skill points, background points or discipline points you get, and disciplines are based on varying costs rather than each discipline costing the same number of points. Beyond that, though, it’s basically Storyteller with a tweaked list of attributes and abilities.

The resolution system is much like Storyteller too – or rather, one of the resolution systems is. The standard dice-rolling mechanism offered uses D12s instead of Storyteller’s D10s, but it still works on the standard “roll a bunch of dice, each one that equals or exceeds the difficulty is a success”. It even includes the original pre-Revised botch mechanic where each 1 cancels a success and you botch if you get more 1s than successes. Instead of having Willpower you can spend to get an automatic success, you have Destiny points you can spend to add 1 to the numbers rolled on the dice; crucially, instead of working on a stat plus skill roll, you roll a number of dice equal to the relevant stat and your skill score instead reduces the difficulty.

So far, this strikes me as having all the wonky maths of the standard Storyteller system with an extra bundle of shonky math pasted over the top by the way skills reduce difficulties. But it gets even stranger – you have an entire parallel resolution mechanic using playing cards instead of dice, where the numbered cards correspond to the relevant numbers, Jacks are 11, Queens are 12, and Kings are a failure if you didn’t spend Destiny on the roll or a 13 if you did. (13s having special effects and also being relevant if the task is very difficult and your skill only reduced it to 13).

Supposedly, you are meant to be able to mix and match these and use whichever of them you see fit to use, with no necessity to even keep it consistent within the group – so you might have one person using dice and another person using cards, or even switch between dice and cards circumstantially. In practice, the probabilities for the different systems are clearly going to be different. One a one card draw or one die roll, it’s clearly better to do the die roll if you aren’t spending Destiny or the card draw if you are due to the factor of the Kings; on a multi-card draw or multi-die roll, the probabilities then become complex, because each success you draw reduces the probability of subsequent successes and each failure you draw reduces the probability of successive failures.

It gets wilder. There’s an additional parallel resolution mechanic using tarot cards – Pages are set aside, and the major arcana are dealt out to players separately and may be used by them to trigger thematically-appropriate events and developments in the narrative – as well as a fourth resolution mechanic involving a rough translation of the game mechanics to percentiles which to my eye seems to have no regard for keeping the probabilities even roughly comparable whatsoever.

This strikes me as being an example of the classic 1990s “system doesn’t matter” design taken to extremes. Brown evidently isn’t interested in keeping track of the actual mathematics underpinning the different systems, and it feels like he’s just throwing them into the mix in a bid to please everyone without taking a firm stance on a resolution mechanic. (The text more or less directly says that the percentile system is thrown in to appease people who like percentile systems.) It seems to me that to Brown a resolution mechanic is a mere aesthetic decision and a matter of personal style, and therefore whilst the text encourages people to use the playing cards in preference to the dice because of the different tactile feel (and the tarot deck in preference to the playing cards to be even more magical and mystical), it makes sense from that viewpoint to offer a number of options so people can choose the one that suits them, even though doing so clutters up the presentation of the game and he may as well have just bit the bullet and gone for the resolution mechanic he preferred.

Of the various character types, the Ghuls are the most interesting, being a rather original take on Lovecraftian ghouls; the big twist here is that ghouls are all people who have taken a particular drug called Anecro which, silly name aside, grants them immortality but requires them to eat carrion to avoid degenerating physically and mentally into an animalistic state, the elixir in question being produced by the first ghoul who was an alchemist who botched his immortality serum and then vindictively decided to propagate knowledge of it so that others would share his fate. That’s why it is a shame that vampires are clearly the focus of the book – the chapter on vampires is about as long as the chapters on Ghuls and revenants put together, and the factional breakdown of vampires is much more detailed than the others (as well as being very obviously ripped off from White Wolf, to the point where there’s an actual Nosferatu clan who all look like Max Schreck in Nosferatu because Steven Brown knows no shame, no, not a tiny shred of it).

For supporting characters, a range of additional undead-type Eldritch are offered, ranging from the souls of the dead to Frankenstein-like reanimated corpses to deathmech cyborgs. There’s also brief rules on running a range of other Everlasting types as NPCs, so you don’t need to buy the other books to have them show up. You also get the usual conflicting and not-very-useful advice on running games that White Wolf usually do, including the bit where in one part of the chapter they encourage the referee to improvise a lot and keep the players’ decisions relevant whilst elsewhere in the same chapter providing detailed advice on railroading. (Plus you get the suggestion that Guides should get rewarded in some form for their work in refereeing the game; where the campaign has a rotating Guide position, it kind of makes sense to give people experience points for running the game, but the book also suggests that if you are working with a single person consistently being the Guide the players should give them actual money in gratitude for their services.)

The most legendary part of the book among the gaming community, appropriately enough, is the “legendmaking” chapter, which delves deeper into that whole business. In fact, it’s been such an object of derision and incredulity over the years that in the revised PDF version on DriveThruRPG most of the fun bits are gone, replaced with a brief essay, whereas the rest of the book is more or less intact except for nicer art and a full-colour layout job. Luckily, my copy is the old version with the full-blooded folly of the chapter intact, so I’m going to take the time to break it down section by section.

First up, there’s an introduction that sets out the thesis that storytelling is as old as language itself (debatable but I’ll go along with it on the basis that as soon as a language attains sufficient complexity to have a past tense and narrate events in order you can tell stories with it), that myths provide meaning in our lives (more debatable – they’re a tool for that but a person could pay no heed to myth and still live a meaningful and fulfilled life), that we presently live in a mythless age which needs to discover a new mythology (citation needed), and that The Everlasting is a tool for going beyond storytelling into legendmaking to allow the gaming group to construct a collective mythology which will allow participants to “find enlightenment, spirituality, creativity, beauty, and magic of real life” (citation fucking needed).

We then get a whole heap of mangled Joseph Campbell ideas which constitute Brown’s attempt to finally properly explain what a “personal mythology” is. To boil it down a lot, your “personal mythology” is basically your worldview, but Brown takes as axiomatic your idea that your worldview is underpinned by mythology. This seems to be a huge assumption and based mostly on the classic blunder of assuming that the things which are very important to you must on some level be important to everyone – Brown is very into mythology and sees the world through that lens, to the point where he literally believes that without a personal mythology “your personal experiences would be confusing and disjointed” and that your personal mythology tells you how to react to stuff. Whilst it is true that people generally try to contextualise the stuff that happens to them in some form or another and develop models of how the world works – theory of mind and object permanence being things which we can actually observe babies and young children learning – to attribute these things to mythology either seeks to universalise a particular qualitative experience that other people do not necessarily share or seeks to expand the definition of “mythology” to the point where it is entirely meaningless.

Like anyone who has latched onto a pet Theory of Everything, Brown reaches to try and explain everything in terms of this idea. For instance, he asserts that when our beliefs and our behaviour do not match, it’s because of a conflict in our personal mythologies. “Times of indecision, inner conflict, loss of faith or courage, and the questioning of one’s own morals, beliefs, and identity are warning signs from your unconscious mind for a renewal of your mythology,” says Brown. This is the sort of simple, pithy statement that sounds insightful but really isn’t; quack therapies and crank theories are replete with such things. You could take that quote and claim that all that stuff are warning signs of quite something else – that your negative engrams in your reactive mind have kicked in, or that your body thetans are being restimulated, or that you’ve become a Potential Trouble Source due to your connection to a Suppressive Person.

Yes, I deliberately took those three examples from Scientology – L. Ron Hubbard’s writing is replete with the sort of broad, sweeping, universalist and trite statement that Brown offers up here. Maybe I am overreacting to this, but I think that pushing this simplistic ideology is actively misleading if not actually dangerous. Even if you are very, very into Joseph Campbell and really believe in the central importance of mythology in your life, I hope you can see that indecision, self-questioning, becoming discouraged or feeling conflicted are often not the result of anything remotely subconscious whatsoever – that they may, in fact, arise from entirely rational reasons. A dilemma you are facing may be genuinely difficult and an inability to decide between options there may reflect that more than any internal crumbling of your worldview; likewise, if you lose faith in something, it might be because you’ve come across irrefutable evidence that said faith was misplaced.

I find the way Brown pathologises self-questioning to be particularly troubling. I went for the Scientology comparison precisely because destructive cults like Scientology rely on shutting down questioning on the part of the faithful. Self-questioning might be a process you have to work through yourself without resorting to a top-up of mythology to sweep all those pesky doubts back under the carpet, and using a tabletop RPG about vampires and wizards and elves in the modern day for explicitly therapeutic purposes like recalibrating and stabilising your sense of self feels especially alarming. I can’t help but have this powerful mental image of an Everlasting group becoming this sort of leaderless, codependent cult, where the participants end up extremely reliant on the game and each other’s participation in it for their own personal well-being to the extent that they refuse to let each other leave.

I am aware here that I am sounding like a script consultant for Mazes & Monsters here. Perhaps this is all just as harmless as any other tabletop RPG. But I genuinely think there is a difference here: I am not aware of any other tabletop RPG that claims to be a tool for personal exploration and discovery in the same way that The Everlasting does whilst simultaneously claiming that through the manipulation and cultivation of one’s personal mythology you can sort your life out. These claims are the sort of claims that quack therapy cults spit out all the time. If the techniques offered here are entirely pointless and ineffectual, it’s a scam. If they actually are of some therapeutic or psychiatric good, bundling them into a spooky game about cannibals and bloodsuckers seems to not exactly set them in the best therapeutic context. Anyone who took this stuff seriously and found a bunch of other people who also took this stuff seriously could well go off the deep end here, not because of some evil influence in the game actively driving them mad but because of the game advocating the playing of itself as a therapeutic course of action when actually there are plenty of personal crises people could suffer where this would be absolutely the wrong medicine to take.

The book is quite clear about this: “Legendmaking in The Everlasting is about personal transformation of the self through participation in ritual exercises, roleplaying, storytelling, lucid dreaming, and relaxation techniques”. This isn’t just about playing an RPG; this is about an RPG forming the centrepiece of a whole battery of techniques with an avowed end of personal transformation. Even such innocuous-sounding things as relaxation techniques are absolutely not for everyone – “mindfulness” training, for instance, can prompt some very negative experiences in people. Even if nobody has an ulterior motive, getting together to accomplish personal transformation as a group using all these techniques involves way, way more trust than simply playing an RPG; even if you think that a commercial RPG is an appropriate tool for such things, I kind of doubt you’d want to work your personal transformation around a third-rate World of Darkness knock-off. And if the group doesn’t do the whole rotating-referee thing that is suggested but has a single person consistently acting as Guide, and if they let that person call the shots when it comes not just to the roleplaying and storytelling but also the relaxation techiques, lucid dreaming and ritual exercises, that’s a potential recipe for disaster.

Remember, this is a game which already advocates giving money to your Guide; I can’t help but think that a referee who wanted to become a cult leader and who could find a group of people who a) took this legendmaking personal mythology stuff very seriously and b) didn’t recognise how out of step from common tabletop RPG practice The Everlasting is could really take things to a dark place here. Hell, even the described process of exploring your personal mythology, working out which myths don’t work for you, and replacing them with better ones kind of sounds like a Joseph Campbell reskin of Dianetics.

Some quotes from the “Living Mythically” section which I think underscore my point:

“A central theme to living mythically is the cultivation of a relationship between you and the universe. Through living mythically you recognize that you are not an isolated, independent being, but the product of hundreds of generations of humans over the millennia. You will gain wisdom and confidence to make positive changes in your life by recognizng your personal myths and examining them critically.”

“You will be able to step back and examine the lens of your personal mythology, seeing how it distorts reality for you. Through living mythically you will develop the power to make better, more creative, and self-empowering choices within your life.”

“People who suffer stress and nameless anxiety may be following myths that are not attuned to their needs. By living mythically you define the personal myths that are no longer effective and modify them.”

Perhaps luckily, whilst the chapter is long on rhetoric about legendmaking, it’s actually comparatively sparse when it comes to actual techniques. On the ritual side of things, brief ceremonies for commencing and ending Everlasting sessions are offered (along with a system of colour-coded candles to light during these depending on the themes that are going to be dealt with in the session). There’s also a discussion of “solitary legendmaking”, which so far as I can make out consists of just writing stories about your Everlasting character without particularly thinking ahead or planning and seeing where your improvised scribblings take you. Perhaps the most out-there portions of the chapter come under the section “Achieving Altered States of Consciousness”, which advocates meditating a little before beginning play to get into your character’s mindset, discusses lucid dreaming, and offers a self-hypnosis script to use when cooking up a character concept.

It’s a chapter which lurches dizzily between being alarming and being just a little silly. If you’re coming to The Everlasting as a tabletop RPG, you get a shaky photocopy of the World of Darkness setting coupled to a bodged-together system and carrying with it a bunch of baggage that you are probably going to find rather risible. If you’re actually seriously into ritual, lucid dreaming, meditation, hypnosis, and the use of myth in all that jazz, you’d probably find The Everlasting to be a weird bastardisation of those techniques, offering not quite enough information to properly understand them or use them to get the wanted effect and coupled to a goofy vampire game which you’d probably find at best extraneous to the exercise and at worse an actively unhelpful burden.

It is entirely possible that some techniques originating in tabletop RPGs could be usefully transferred to some sort of therapeutic, self-exploratory, or occult practice in order to provide a useful tool in that context. But if you wanted to do that, you’d need to be much less clumsy at it than The Everlasting is.

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