If I asked you to list the components of a role-playing game, you'd probably say character sheets, miniatures, and dice. Multi-sided "chance cubes" help decide whether actions and attacks performed by player-characters are successful, and determine important game elements, from weapon damage to whether or not a guard laughs at a joke.
Could an RPG work without dice? Jonathan Tweet, creator of Ars Magica and the lead designer of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, thought so. In 1995, 20 years after D&D revolutionized gaming, Tweet tried to change the role-playing genre by using cards instead of dice. The result was Everway, which called itself "Visionary Roleplaying." Was it successful? You be the judge.
The World of Everway
One of the innovative aspects of the game's universe is that it consists of spheres, different dimensions that can reflect any kind of pre-industrial culture, from typical European fantasy to Ancient Greece to Middle-Dynasty China. Thus, players can choose from a vast array of settings, genres, and campaigns. There are monsters and magic, but the Game Master can choose their type and frequency.
The game's default setting is the city of Everway, an inter-dimensional crossroads that hosts travelers ("Spherewalkers") from other spheres, so a Samurai-type warrior could be in the same party as a Tolkein-esque wizard. That sort of freedom is a hallmark of the game.
Cards from Everway's Vision Deck. How would you use these images to construct a character?
How do you determine player attributes? Through cards called the Vision Deck, which provide artwork in a range of striking styles that you can interpret as events, goals, battles, or backstories that affect your character. You then divide 20 points among four attributes: Fire (speed and strength), Air (intelligence and communication), Earth (health and endurance), and Water (perception and spirituality).
Through that Water attribute, anyone—not just "magician" characters—can also possess magical ability, which cost from zero points (minimal effect on gameplay) to three points (versatile, frequently used, and with major effect on play). If you want a truly magic-oriented character, you can use the rules to create one based on the four elements (Earth for healing, for example), or just make up your own. If the GM and other players agree to it, and you pay for it with points, you're good to go.
For the final part of character creation, each player chooses three more attributes, chosen from the Vision Deck. A Virtue is a strength or "good" trait; a Flaw is a weakness or problem to be overcome; and a Fate is goal or some major unresolved issue. There are no points for these. They're simply to make the characters more interesting and to give the GM ideas for meaningful adventures.
The Three Laws
Gameplay is simple and based on good storytelling. Remember, there are no dice to roll. Creator Tweet said that, when the GM has to make a decision, he can base it on one of three factors:
- The Law of Karma: The character with the higher attribute score wins. That's a simple matter of math.
- The Law of Drama: The outcome that would be the most interesting/dramatic/cool for the plot. That throws out the scores (or uses them as only a starting point) and puts story first.
- The Law of Fate: The GM can draw a card from the Fortune Deck, a tarot-like collection of 36 images and characters. This outcome is more random and somewhat recreates the "dice effect."
The Fortune Deck
This deck is pretty cool, with high-quality art. Its images range from creatures (the Dragon signifies cunning) to characters (the Soldier means duty) to seasons (Summer indicates energy). I'm a big fan of the metaphorical cards. Drowning in Armor, for example, means protective measures turn dangerous, while Striking the Dragon's Tail means underestimating the threat. Like the tarot, all of these cards can be reversed, if drawn that way, so the Dragon becomes blind fury and the Soldier becomes mindless obedience.
This is not how one usually approaches a role-playing game. If a player-character is fighting a centaur in the ruins of a temple, for example, and the GM draws the card of the Eagle, which means the mind prevails... what happens? Does that mean the character outsmarts the centaur? Does it mean the character with the higher intelligence should prevail? Does the "mind" refer to the temple, whose deity has a preference for who wins? The GM has to think on his feet.
Did It Work?
Despite the simplicity—and in some ways, complexity—of Everway, the game was not a big hit. Its publisher, Wizards of the Coast, sold it to Rubicon Games, who then sold it to Gaslight Press in 2001. Three owners in six years is not a sign of success.
While Gaslight seems to have run out of gas, there are plenty of fan sites for lovers of the game. The open-ended quality of Everway encouraged many fans to create campaigns, magic systems, and mythologies, which can be found online. I think its revolutionary gameplay concept should be celebrated, and replicated in other games.
If you're ready to play, box sets are still available. They can be pricey, due to the amount of cards, with their excellent art and high-quality materials. There's one set on Amazon for $75.
Have you played Everway? What did you think? Roll the dice... I mean, draw a card in the comments.