Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Everway: My Favorite Obscure RPG

Zachary the First over at RPG Blog II wrote today about his favorite obscure RPG. In response, I dropped a comment about Everway, which to this day has the distinction of being the one game I’ve played more than any other in my gaming career. It’s also a game system that I’ve seen used to run an incredible array of genres, including Star Wars and homebrew superhero.

Everway was a bit of a marketing dud, and in retrospect it seems pretty clear that Wizards of the Coast (yes, WOTC published Everway) didn’t have any idea what they had on their hands. They made it into a boxed set and marketed it in toy stores alongside Monopoly and Risk. Big mistake.

In brief: Everway uses a tarot-themed “Fortune deck” to resolve actions and situations; players flip cards from the top of the deck in lieu of rolling dice. Cards themselves are interpreted by the GM based on their orientation, the illustration and a few bits of prose on each side of the card. I’ve included an image here of a card called “Summer.” It has two interpretations, depending on its orientation when flipped: “Energy” vs. “Exhaustion.”

This dynamic allows the GM and players to paint with broad strokes when necessary — and dig deeper into the plot and story for special moments. In combat, flipping a card like “Summer” is pretty cut-and-dried...if you get the positive result (“Energy”) chances are you might power through your opponent and land a crippling blow. Likewise, if you flip the card and it’s inverted (“Exhaustion”) the GM might describe how your character falters at a key moment and loses the advantage.

In a social scene, a card like “Summer” takes on an entirely different flavor. Different interpretations might depend on how the situation is going at that given moment. It could be literal (the nobleman must retire to bed; he’s exhausted) or it could be figurative (the barbarians tire of your attempts at parley and choose to speak with their axes!). Bantering with the GM over the myriad interpretations of a given card flip almost becomes a game unto itself, and it's certainly one of the most satisfying elements of Everway resolution system.

The flip side, of course, is that there’s virtually no crunch to the game and players must be of a relatively high maturity level to avoid an imbalanced play experience. Character creation starts by choosing a few fantasy art cards to illustrate key scenes from your character’s background. The boxed game comes with 90 or so random cards, and players are encouraged to seek out their own. (I snagged a small lot of Michael Whelan cards on ebay to use in my campaign.) This element makes the game instantly visual; players are encouraged to pick new cards throughout the campaign to illustrate new encounters or situations.

Characters have just four stats, representing the four elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Air. From there, players can buy powers to describe specific effects, or they can sketch out their own separate, uniquely customizable magic system. If you want magic, you must put work into designing it for yourself.

But again — the numbers don’t matter much; they’re just there to give the GM a few absolutes upon which to measure the rest of the game. Card-flipping is where Everway really shines. Depending on how much weight the GM has allotted it, a single flip might determine if you land a punch or mobilize an army.

Over the years, I’ve played several campaigns of “vanilla” Everway, usually some variant of the traditional D&D campaign. There’s less of a focus on combat, though, because the resolution system moves so quickly. This leaves more time for robust storytelling and character development, which I really enjoyed.

From this basis, my old group successfully ran Star Wars using the Everway system. In place of the Fortune Deck, the GM made up his own “Way of the Force” deck, with phrases and concepts appropriate to Star Wars. (Yes, we even had a “I Have A Bad Feeling About This” card!)

After that, we built on this success by molding Everway to run a Silver Age superhero game. Again, this necessitated a new, homemade Fortune Deck with cards like “Up, Up and Away!” and “The Villain Unmasked!”

The key with Everway is that the game moves fast. There are no cumbersome combat tables or formula to work out. You’ll move quickly from combat to a chase scene to a negotiation scenario, then back to combat — all in about an hour of play. Everything hinges on the GM’s interpretation of a flipped card. This meant we were able to really plow through a campaign — encompassing many months of in-game time — in a relatively short period of time.

(It's worth noting that Everway's published universe draws heavy inspiration from more ethereal, romantic, dreamy, mythological fantasy tropes; it's definitely NOT swords-and-sorcery. My group considered using the published setting for about 2 seconds, then jettisoned it in favor of a homebrew world that was essentially a clone of traditional D&D, albeit a bit darker. We've not looked back since.)

Last I checked, Everway was purchased by Gaslight Press several years ago, though no new products have been announced. That’s OK — the game itself is easy enough to find on ebay


Zachary The First said...

Hey, thanks for posting and the link! Your intro of Everway there is pretty interesting--I'd heard a lot of negative things about it, but if I can find it on the cheap, I might need to at least take a look at it.

Alex Schroeder said...

I wonder whether one could use this idea together with the Paizo Harrow Deck...