Wizards of the Coast, 1995
9 1/2 x 13 1/2 x 2 1/4 inch boxed set, containing
Supporting products in the collection
There are games about dreams, games set in dreams, and dreams of games. Everway was one of the rare games that played like a dream. Everway had a feel unlike any other RPG that we've tried thus far. Perhaps it was the way fantasy art was seamlessly tied into the game, so that it was more visual than most RPGs. Perhaps it was the fact that rules took a back seat to the needs of the story, so that storybook logic was an actual game mechanic. Perhaps it was the fact that there were no real combat mechanics separate from the rest of the rules, so that combat was simply role-playing, not an exercise in die rolling and rule-mongering. Perhaps it was the setting, a universe where player characters were expected to walk from world to world, so that settings changed dramatically.
Everway had an unfortunate history. It was first published by Wizards of the Coast back in the 1990s, when WoTC had just become wealthy on the sales of the first big commercial collectable card game, Magic: The Gathering. In those days, TSR was the dominant RPG company, owner of the pre-eminent Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, and Hasbro made stuffy old family games and toys.
Wizards wanted a way to introduce Magic players to RPGs. Their game needed to be simple to play, easy for novices to create characters and start playing them, and be attractive to players of the Magic card game. Veteran designer Jonathan Tweet obliged, creating a game with simple rules, card-based game mechanics, a way to sell booster packs with a random selection of cards, no odd polyhedral dice, and a means for generating characters that's remarkably simple. Tweet was able to discard or drastically pare down all of the parts of role playing games that require quantification and complexity: character generation, combat, experience, and magic.
Physically beautiful, loaded with eye-appeal, backed by a popular gaming company with good connections and deep pockets, and with a large target audience, Everway should have become a big hit. But it didn't. Everway's failures were economic. It was rather expensive ($35 for the boxed set, at a time when most RPGs released books at half the price), and it was sold through WoTC's collectible card game distributers, who wanted no part of it. In fact, the distributors were forced to carry it if they wanted to sell the Magic card game. The distributors, in turn, dumped it on the stores who were selling Magic, many of which also had no interest in selling RPGs. They lowered prices to try to dump the game, and RPG retailers were forced to follow suit. The price drops and the unusual game mechanics convinced people the game was a turkey, and they avoided it. Jonathan Tweet later called the game the worst failure he'd ever designed, although the failure was due to marketing, not design. Wizards dropped all their RPGs shortly afterwards, and soon bought TSR, gaining ownership of the biggest RPG in the market. There was no need to maintain separate designs of their own any more.
Everway was sold to a small, but enthusiastic outfit called Rubicon Games in early 1996. Rubicon released the materials Wizards had in the pipeline (the Spherewalker supplement book and associated cards), sold replacement parts separately, and produced Realms of the Sun under their own cover. But Rubicon couldn't keep itself afloat, and Everway was sold to Gaslight Games. Gaslight limited itself to maintaining a discussion group and making preliminary attempts to create a second edition.
To understand the setting, we must first describe Gates. Gates permit some talented individuals to cross to parallel worlds, called spheres in the game. People who can cross the Gates are called Spherewalkers, and player characters are assumed to be spherewalkers. Thus, the setting of the game is a multiverse of spheres, connected by magical Gates. Such a broad setting gives a referee (or Teller, in the language of the game) nearly complete flexibility. But even though the spheres can be radically different, some elements remain the same from world to world. They have the same stars and planets, the same days and years; people speak the same language (the Tongue) on every sphere; conditions are proper to support human life. Spheres are subdivided into Realms, which encompass similar cultures and climates.
Since nearly all peoples speak the Tongue, there are no nonsense words. Names are common words, such as Sunflower, Takes Too Much, or Diamond. (In fact, many names in English have meaning, too, but we usually don't pay attention to them.) This rule is responsible for much of the dreamy feeling of Everway.
Another element common to all realms is the Fortune Deck. Created by the gods, the Fortune Deck is the guide to life. It's a deck of thirty-six cards, something like our tarot, and it's the same in all spheres with one difference. When the gods created the deck, a force of Chaos stole one of the cards. In many spheres, various forces have taken the place of the missing card. Thus, each sphere shares thirty five of the same cards of the Fortune Deck, but there may be a unique card in most spheres. This card is referred to as the usurper.
To give referees (or Tellers) somewhere to begin, Jonathan Tweet spent thirteen pages in the Playing Guide rulebook describing the city of Everway, which effectively serves as the center of the universe because of its seventy-one Gates, more in one Realm than any other place known. As a major nexus in the universe, the city of Everway attracts spherewalkers and oddities from all over. The game could be set in the eponymous city without needing spherewalking at all. Everway also claims the landmark Walker's Pyramid, a massive structure lacking a capstone. Legend says the Walker creates Gates by his crossing from sphere to sphere, seeking stones for the pyramid. Nobody knows what will happen when the Walker returns with the last stone: some say the universe will end, but this is only one theory.
Everway is matriarchal, with strong ruling families. While Tweet touched on politics, important families, economics, and major features, most of the city was undescribed, leaving it up to individual Tellers to develop as they see fit. There was a color map of the city included in the box, but it only showed the major landmarks. Tweet wanted his players to make this city their own.
Instead of rolling dice when an event needed to be resolved, a card was drawn from the Fortune Deck, and the Teller interpreted it according to the meaning of the card, the symbolism hidden in it, and the game situation. For example, when a character attempted to leap over a chasm, the Teller may have had the player draw a card. If the result was the Lion (meaning: The Body Prevails), that would indicate clear success. The meaning of the card was clearly relevant to the situation, and the physical prowess represented by the Lion card indicated success for physical ventures. A result of Fearing Shadows (Unnecessary Fear) could indicate that the chasm appeared far scarier than it was. Depending on other circumstances, the character may succeed or fail, but was likely to discover that the chasm was less dangerous than it appearedor contrarily, may come to fear the chasm as being far more dangerous than it really was.
We have heard complaints that the Fortune Deck led too easily to binary, success/failure outcomes. While this happened with inexperienced Tellers, the wealth of symbolism in the Fortune Deck gave the opportunity for Tellers to provide rich interpretations in a way that dice cannot without a cumbersome assortment of tables. For example, a character is haranging a crowd, and wants to know their reaction. The Teller may draw the Cockatrice (Corruption). This is clearly a failure of some kind, but exactly which kind? The Teller may rule that the mob harbors secret agents of the government who will arrest the speaker, or incite violence; the crowd may superficially follow the speaker's wishes, but begin to riot and loot; the podium may collapse due to rot, injuring the speaker. The Teller chooses whatever outcome would make for the most interesting story.
The other deck of cards included in the Everway set was the Vision deck. This was a deck of 90 cards of art. The pictures vary widely in topic and style, giving a diversity of imagery and ideas. Many of the artists who did the pictures are well-known, and some of the cards are recycled art, reproducing book and L.P. covers. The backs of the cards have questions about the art, to help guide the player in considering the meaning of the scene shown.
Should players tire of the ninety vision cards, an additional ninety could be bought (the Companion deck). These were packaged like collectible card game booster packs, in random selections of ten cards.
Creating a Character
Rather than leaping into quantification of character abilities, Everway guided players to consider their character's motives, personality, and backstory first, making character ability serve the concept, rather than vice versa. The character creation system followed a six-step sequence to create characters: Vision, Identity, Powers, Elements, Magic, and Question.
In the vision stage, the player leafed through vision cards and selected five of them. The player would build a character concept out of the art on the cards, explaining what each picture showed and why they were relevant to the character.
In the identity stage, players developed key story elements for the character: the character's name, her motivation for being a spherewalker, and her Virtue, Flaw, and Fate. A character's Virtue was her single best feature: great strength, morality, kind heart, and so on. Her Flaw was her greatest weakness, such as ignorance, greed, shortsightedness, and so on. Her Fate was her destiny: a struggle or event that will change her life forever. Virtue, Fate, and Flaw were each represented by the most appropriate card from the Fortune Deck. If, in play, one of these cards appeared, they would have special significance for the character. For example, if a character's flaw was cowardice (represented by the Fearing Shadows card), and that card appeared when trying to jump a chasm, the character might be unable to cross it in any way, or collapse as a gibbering heap rather than confront it.
Once the character's basic personality was sketched out, the player would begin to assign points to characteristics. Players began with a pool of twenty elemental points to distribute across four attributes, based on the four Greek elements: Air, Fire, Earth, and Water. Air was the element of the mind: cleverness, wit, speech, charm, and so forth. Fire was the element of energy, governing activity, speed, and physical quickness. Earth was the element of endurance, related to physical strength and power, resistance, and general health. Water was the element of sensitivity and intuition, governing emotion and the character's connection to the spirit world.
Players assigned scores from two to nine points in each element. A score of three represented average human ability, and each step up indicated a doubling of ability: a character with a Fire of four was twice as fast as one with a Fire of three.
With each element governing a wide variety of abilities, characters might be very similar to one another. To help distinguish them, players chose specialties for each element. A specialty was a particular skill or ability inside of that element. The character had an effective skill of one point higher for tasks involving their specialty. For example, a character with a Water of six might have a specialty of "sense the spirit world". When trying to detect ghosts or spirits, the character would have an effective Water score of seven. While some specialities were provided, the rules expected players to make up their own ideas.
In addition to the four elements, players spent points on extra abilities. Some of these were classified as Powers, others as Magic. Powers were generally specific effects or items, while Magic was far more general and flexible.
Powers encompassed character special abilities, companions, or magical items. As for specialities, the rules provided examples, but Tweet intended for players to make up their own. Some of the examples included animal companions, the ability to produce fire from bare hands, instant healing, invisibility, and shapechange. Powers needed to be purchased out of the pool of elemental points, so the more powers a character possessed, the fewer points he had for his characteristics. Every character was entitled to one free, zero-point power.
When players came up with their own ideas, Tellers decided how much they would cost. As a guideline, powers were priced based on three criteria: frequent, major, and versatile. Frequent meant the power could be used repeatedly; major meant that the power had a large effect; and versatile meant that it would be helpful across a variety of situations. For each criteria the power met, the Teller should raise the cost by one point; for very strong powers, the cost could be higher. The free, zero-point powers were therefore relatively weak: infrequent, minor, and non-versatile. Some examples of zero-point powers from the book were the ability to talk to birds, the ability to ride any mount without training, or the ability to make a musical instrument play by itself without touching it. A power like shapechange into a bird would be considered both frequent and major, but not versatile (because there's only one form), so it would cost two points.
The final stage of character creation, the question stage, really helped to fine-tune characters. Each player asked the player creating her character questions about the character, in order to sharpen her portrayal. Suggested questions focus on the character's home realm, why they wander, whom they love, the happiest event in their life, and so forth. Players are encouraged to ask questions about the vision cards used to inspire the character ("Who's this in the background, and what is she doing?" "Is this your pet?") and to ask and answer questions in character: "I don't normally trust females. What's so special about you that makes you trustworthy?" "Well, I've been a legal advisor in the Red Circle Court, so I've learned to be a good listener."
The Everway character generation system is simple and a lot of fun. It takes roughly an hour or two for a group of four players to create their characters, but after character creation, they tend to be fairly well-developed, and the player has a good grasp of who they are. The Virtue, Fault, and Fate and Questions stages tend to sharpen characters better than most character generation systems do, and the results are usually rich and interesting. Everway can produce some very interesting and atypical characters.
The rules for magic were much more vague, and required a lot of discretion on the Teller's part. Unlike Powers, magic was seen as flexible, with limitations negotiated between the Teller and the player. Tweet noted in the rules that if you couldn't handle the Teller's limitations, then don't use magic.
Elemental points spent for magic went into the Magic category. The main rule was that magic had to be linked to an element, and the score for that element had to be at least equal to the magic score. With twenty points, and a minimum score of two in the four elements, that set the upper limit for magic at seven points. Average magical ability, among mages (those who can use magic of any kind), was three points.
Players were expected to define their magical tradition or "school." What type of magic did they wield? What were its limitations? How were spells cast? As in most of Everway, players were limited only by their imagination and Teller fiat. Spells might be traditional incantations, dances, folding paper figures, long declamatory poetry, or anything else.
The rules provided four examples of magical schools. These schools are so broad (and are used for the pre-generated characters) that a reader might easily imagine that most magic needed to fit into these systems. Air magicians used magic words and incantations and specialized in commands and bindings; Fire mages worked through gaze and had a skill for transformational magic; Earth mages worked by using their hands and specialized in healing and cleansing; Water magicians were sensitive to the spirits and worked through their senses: potions, incenses, etc.
Even within these guidelines, magic use was confusing. Did mages need to define specific spells or even specific effects, or could they just freewheel within these very broad limits? The pregenerated characters gave some assistance: these were limited in what they could do, but not very. For example, Cleft is a healer who can create wards against evil. He can lift curses and send away spirits, bless objects against harm, boost a character's resistance to a threat, and even put a protective blessing over an army. No specific spells are listed, but there are limits to his power.
The rules did provide a few additional guidelines, and the main thrust of these seemed to be "keep mages weak."
One was the rule of Two Elements: a magician's maximum effect was about equal to what a non-magician might do with two elements of that level. For example, if a Fire Mage with a magical level of six wanted to bring down a city wall, the amount of damage he could do was about the same that a single hero with Earth and Fire scores of six each could do non-magically.
The other was found in some simple tables. For each non-magical element, Tweet had a simple table showing what each score, from one to ten, meant. For example, a character with an Earth score of four was..."Robust... poison weakens the character, but he or she can still act. Medical help would assure a strong recovery." There are five such tables for magic. One is for magic overall; the rest are more specifically how strong a mage is in each of the four examples of schools of magic. For overall magic, a mage with a magical level of three was considered powerful, with considerable strength in their particular speciality. A mage of level six was considered perhaps the most powerful mage most had ever heard of: a realm of a million people might have one such individual. A mage at the (beginning) maximum of seven was Legendary; there might be one such in a continent of ten million people.
Perhaps the most illustrative of the four specific tables for magic by element is the one for Air: one would need an Air Magic score of six to be able to kill an average strength individual (Earth score 3) with a word. While this is somewhat less than what the Two Elements rule dictates (a warrior doesn't need a Fire and Earth score of six each to easily kill an average man with a single arrow or sling stone), Tweet says that the mage's ability to do this at a distance, possibly silently and unseen, makes it more or less even.
Four factors served to limit magic further. First, it is very expensive in character generation. Players need to spend twice as many points for magic as for any other ability, because they need to have points in both magic and the linked element, and this means reduced scores in other areas if the magical character is to have any real power. Second, by the rule of Two Elements, a character using magic cannot be more powerful than a non-magical character who has high scores in their basic elements. This means that a mage character needs to distribute points across five characteristics to accomplish the same effects as a character distributing points across four characteristics. Third, in order to have a high magic score, a character necessarily has weaknesses in at least one other element. Magicians with a low Air score may not understand more complex magic; those with a low Fire score may have weak spells with little force; those with a low Earth score are easily fatigued; those with low Water scores are easily misled and are insensitive to unseen forces. The fourth limitation is noted above: magic use is fatiguing. Unless the character has a high Earth score, they are unlikely to be able to produce many large magical effects a day.
Given all of these limitations, what is the point of magic? Flexibility. The Powers ensure that all characters have a shot at some form of special ability that might be called "magic" in other games. But Powers are limited. Each can only do what its set out to do at character generation. Mages are flexible, because their magic is not well-defined. The magical power to summon souls can have all sorts of uses, from calling spirits for information to knocking somebody unconscious by removing their soul temporarily to finding one's own true love. It seems pretty clear that Tweet wanted players to have a great deal of latitude in being magicians, but he didn't want them to dominate the game. In fact, the Playing Guide recommends that the Teller keep a tight rein on players who abuse their magical ability. If they unbalance the game, then the Teller can either tone down the strength of the magic, or make sure that opponents are prepared and have counters ready. Player character mages are not more powerful than non-mage members of the party.
The descriptions of the Fortune Deck and the magical system have already given away most of the game's mechanics. The main rules left assist the Teller in determining what will happen in a scenario, or Quest. These are the Laws of Karma, Drama, and Fortune.
The Law of Karma is that more powerful characters usually win. Since an increase of one point in Elemental scores is a rough doubling of ability, a character with Fire and Earth scores of five each will easily defeat an opponent with the human normal scores of three in each. The Law of Karma says the hero will win this battle without much trouble. Another factor of the Law of Karma has to do with good and evil actions. If players have their character perform evil actions, then bad things will happen to them later in the game.
The Law of Drama is that Tellers should take into account what makes a good story. If the heroes are imprisoned in a dungeon and are waiting to be executed in the morning, the Teller may rule that there is a loose stone in the wall, a secret passage, or a sympathetic guard, in order to keep the story moving and make it more exciting.
Finally, the Law of Fortune is to draw a Fortune card and interpret it. If a character's Virtue, Fault, or Fate comes up, it's going to be a dramatic and important moment, and the Teller should narrate it that way.
If it sounds like these "rules" are ripe for abuse, they are. Everway is a storytelling game, not a simulation. Players have to trust their Teller to tell a good story and not over-manipulate them or treat them badly. If the Teller can't keep the story going, give the players a good time, and not abuse her power, then she may as well put the game away.
Combat follows the same rules of Karma, Drama, and Fortune as the rest of the game. The rules go into some detail as to how to adjudicate combat. Tellers may use Karma or Drama to simply narrate a result, or they may use a single draw from the Fortune deck to resolve the entire battle, or they may draw a series of Fortune cards, one for each exchange of blows. Everway has no real rules for damage or armor. Tellers compare the Fire and Earth scores of opponents, and modify these by the weapons and armor of the combatants. For example:
A character's Earth score gives a rough estimate as to how much punishment he can take, but there are no hit points and few rules for damage. Wounds are descriptive only: Flesh, Disabling, Mortal, and Special. Flesh wounds have little effect on a character; each disabling wound effectively reduces a character's Elements scores by one, and a mortal wound means unconsciousness or death, although it's up to the Teller as to how long this will takemoments, days, a week? Special wounds reduce a character's capabilities: blinded by that cut on the forehead; a leg injury means he cannot walk, and so on.
The Playing Guide devotes twenty-nine pages to the laws of Karma, Drama, and Fortune, so the Teller is not completely in the dark as to what's expected of her.
The Guide to the Fortune Deck assists Tellers in making interpretations of the cards. They describe some of the symbolism of the cards, note elements and astrological significances. The book also describes how to lay out the cards to do divinations for the characters; this system is used in many spheres.
The Gamemastering Guide gives further information on running the game: more details and examples of how combat might be run, descriptions of how to put together Quests, and information on Boons. Everway doesn't provide experience points for characters: they remain largely as they were created. But a successful Quest usually means obtaining treasures that may be useful in later games; these are called Boons. The Gamemastering Guide also describes how to develop spheres and realms for adventuring in.
Half of the Gamemastering Guide is for the introductory Quest included in the game, Journey to Stonedeep. This is a fairly simple and straight-forward adventure, although it's largely up to the players and Teller as to how complicated it will become. Failure is a distinct possibility, although reasonably competent players should be able to succeed. This sample quest goes a long way toward showing how an Everway Quest should be designed and run.
As noted above, Rubicon released the Spherewalker supplemental book and card set. Written by Greg Stolze, Spherewalker is a marvellous addition to the game, and much harder to find these days than the main boxed set. It has 136 pages, and is something like an encyclopedia, with entries of varied lengths listed in alphabetical order. Stolze expanded and detailed some of the Everway mythology, and added some of his own. Themes that run through Spherewalker include the war of the dragons against the gods; the mystical nature of roses; the three great tools the gods: the Pearl of Making, the Edge of Light and Darkness, and the Mirror of Shadows; the Order of the Silver Nail and its hunt for the undead; the warring Red and Blue merchant Kingdoms; the inhuman Basahn, who have their own language. Spherewalker also introduces the Glorious Empire as a moderately well-described setting. While this realm is probably less desirable as a starting point than Everway, it's a fascinating one to explore.
One way to make use of Spherewalker is to pick a point at random and start reading. It's so full of adventure seeds that a competent Teller can devise a Quest based on nearly any page of the book.
The ninety Spherewalker cards are companions to the book. Some of them depict images from the book, and others contain entirely unrelated information. The backs have information about the picture rather than questions. If the cards were still commercially available, they would be well-worth seeking out, but these days, it would be very difficult to obtain a full deck.
Everway was a commercial flop. We suspect it would have failed even with better marketing. It demands maturity and experience from the Teller, and the lack of standard RPG tropes such as dice and detailed combat rules would have turned off many. On the other hand, with a good Teller, Everway has much to recommend it. The character generation system draws people into the game gently but quickly, and with limited game mechanics, players can easily immerse themselves into playing their character and accomplishing their quest. Physically beautiful, Everway catches the eye, and rewards creativity. The Everway discussion group (Everway-L@yahoogroups.com) is still active, although at very low volume.
We are very pleased to have a copy of this game. The components are colorful and fun to look at, and the rules are more fun to read than most rulebooks. They contain numerous adventure seeds and hidden mysteries to wonder about, and as one might expect, they are nicely illustrated with pictures from the Vision deck. It can sometimes be found cheaply from on-line auction services or garage sales, as many owners do not appear to treasure it as we do. As noted above, the supplements can be hard to find, but the game is complete enough in its original box and it's easy to supplement with any source of art that appeals.
A Personal Note from the Curator
I was sold on Everway by the advertisements in Dragon Magazine before the game itself was released. The ad featured the Fortune card Drowning in Armor and it caught my attention. The strangeness of the game mechanics took a while for me to overcome, but after running a quest or two, I really began to appreciate how the rules supported a totally different feel for fantasy role playing. One of the best adventures I've ever written was the Celestial Mechanic, a two-part game that made use of many of the themes in Spherewalker. I found the conclusion to that game to be one of the most satisfying I've ever had.
I still play Everway now and again. I confess, there are times when I long for dice, such as trying to decide which character is the target of an attack, but by the same token, the Fortune deck is such a useful tool that I've seen another Everway fan use it for all of his role playing games now, regardless of their actual rules.
Everway isn't for everybody, but I wish more people could be exposed to it, if only to see how a story-based, mythic-feeling game system feels. Everway rewards creativity in a way that few other systems can. I would also add that Everway rescued my gaming from the rules-laded slump that too many years of strict Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had driven it into. It's a great game.