Monday, 10 March 2014

White Whales (Part Four)

While we're talking about Jonathan Tweet, let's talk about his other great 1990s game (one could argue that ARS MAGICA also qualifies, but I'm afraid I can't speak to that one) EVERWAY.

EVERWAY makes an interesting counterpoint to OVER THE EDGE. While the latter is contemporary, surreal, and focused on the small dramas of the obsessive exiles in Al Amarja, the former is mythic fantasy, drawing on classical storytelling modes, and its stories are played out against the largest possible tapestry -- "Discover the fates of a thousand worlds" is the game's tag line. Both feature robust character generation systems that tend to produce unique, rich characters, and a cosmopolitan attitude -- encountering people of different cultures is a core part of each game. 

The thing that makes EVERWAY special, and alas, probably means we'll never see its like again, is that both character generation and task resolution in the game relies heavily on imagery and interpretation. An integral part of character creation is to draw five cards from a deck of images that reproduces a wide range of fantasy paintings (which are remarkably broad in their depiction of different races and cultures) and use them to tell the story of your character's life up to the beginning of the game. Clearly, this was an expensive proposition -- one that only Wizards of the Coast, in the early 90s "rolling in dough like Uncle Scrooge" days could have ever afforded to bankroll. Task resolution uses a Tarot-style "Fortune deck" that tells you subjectively how Fortune plays a part in the outcome of events.

Unfortunately, the things that make EVERWAY great probably also prevented it from finding a larger audience. Roleplayers are a parochial lot at the best of times, and in the early 90s a diceless fantasy game that did not include classes, equipment, detailed spell rules, or support for classic dungeon-crawling action was not long for this world. I found mine in the bargain bin at Capitaine Quebec, a great comic store in Montreal that dabbled for a time in RPGs. For a while, you could find copies of the boxed game sets and the "vision cards" that were used to build characters for very little money. Me and a few friends were able to secure copies fairly cheaply. So many years down the road, I think it might be a lot harder. 

I have run EVERWAY on several occasions, and we've always had fun with it, but I've never really run that big, ambitious campaign that the game practically demands. It is a game that requires some adjustments on the part of players and also of the GM, in that it doesn't do classic combat-heavy fantasy roleplaying well. A great EVERWAY game feels a lot more like a fairy tale or a myth, and indeed the heroes are intended to start at a very high level of power compared to most games. Spellcasters in this game can literally start out as the most powerful wizard in the world, if they want. How many other games let your sorcerer start out as Gandalf or Merlin, or let your warrior have the strength of Hercules? This is heady stuff, and for a GM who's used to more constrained fantasy romps, it can be tricky to adjust your thinking about challenges and such. 

The resolution system in the game might make some people fear the clammy grasp of GM fiat, and I would say that's true (in fact, I would say that is one of the game's strengths - the lineup to hit me with lead pipes for this heresy forms to the left). The cards in the fortune deck represent broad ideas in narrative, and each card has a "positive" and "negative" meaning depending on whether it is oriented up or down. In a way, this is very simple -- you can pretty much tell whether things go well or poorly depending on what the card says. The different ideas associated with the cards make this somewhat subjective, however, and what exactly success or failure might include will likely vary wildly from one GM to another. I think the modern way to deal with the fortune deck would be to play the cards in the open, and occasionally put the interpretation of the card to the player it affects. "Okay, based on that card, tell us how you escape from the collapsing temple." 

The basics of a setting are included with the game -- the city of Everway itself, a kind of fantasy-mileu Cynosure (see my piece on GRIMJACK) which is at the center of the universe -- connected by the Walker's many gateways to a thousand worlds (or Spheres, as they are known in the game's cosmology). The gate-travelling heroes (also called Spherewalkers) use this city as a kind of base of operations for their exploration of the multiverse, and the GM can use it as a place for recurring characters and intrigue outside of missions to various Spheres or travels for personal reasons. There are short seeds for many different Spheres the characters can visit, and more were detailed in the long-out-of-print SPHEREWALKER SOURCEBOOK by Greg Stolze. (I regret that I did not purchase it, the one time I saw it available for sale. Sigh!)

One day, my path through the Spheres will lead me back to Everway...

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