Everway: Looking for Inspiration (and BBGs)

As I continue developing my diceless RPG I hit a snag… one that is a personal hobgoblin of mine. So I went looking for inspiration.

The Snag: PC Gear.*

*This post takes a sudden sharp turn below… skip down near the bottom for some bigger questions if you aren’t interested in my discussion of the Everway RPG… otherwise.

Looking about: I took my copy of Everway down off the shelf and wandered through it again. This, other than Amber, was my primary source for learning to love diceless play. And my rereading of the game was not disappointing. Everway is a crazy game stuck somewhere between Magic: the Gathering (I’m talking about setting here), Amber, and Planescape. Everything is mythic — it almost feels like Dreamtime when you read through the books.

Reading Everway again reminded me of how profound an influence it had on my thinking at one time — both leading me to some ideas and turning me off to others. The most stunning thing I rediscovered as I worked through the books was that the writing in Everway is as much a “primer to running a story-based-game” as it is a game in its own right. The book has tips and play advice on every page — with lots of examples and suggestions and gentle prodding that “maybe this works best.” The game also presents some interesting relativistic attitudes about gaming… it even discusses the three methods it provides for resolving actions in terms of what a gamemaster might say when discussing why they use or don’t use certain choices.

But like so many of these type of discussions it rarely comes down in the middle — representing the two extremes as if that’s what you should expect at a gaming table.

You know what Everway doesn’t really discuss though? The place of gear in action resolution in a diceless story-type game. Everway pretty much skirts the idea of Gear altogether. Just to be clear, what I mean by Gear is weapons, armor, tools of the trade — not bedrolls and ten-foot poles. And reading the action examples don’t really go very far in helping to inspire me — apparently no one wears armor (though shields do pop up), weapons aren’t really important, etc. And since I’m working on a more traditional fantasy game (in the sense that Combat — while not always the best option — is an option and needs to be treated well in game terms) I feel that I have to give weapons and armor a fair shake at least.

But I’ve been really bummed lately about the whole gaming thing. I mean, I’m running 1.5 games (one is just a playtest group) and I’m in a game again — which is really nice — but I’m bummed out by the “argument” I’ve been reading about the Quantum Ogre and this whole question of agency in games Some relevant links here and here. I’m still in debate about diving into this argument myself. I feel really strongly about it, on several levels, but I don’t know that I have the right things to offer when it comes to the question at hand…

So I’m going to leave you with this tidbit from Everway and I’m curious what readers might have to say about it…

Here’s a sample bit of the BBG from the sample adventure in Everway — what reaction do you have to this:

Description: The Awakener embodies death, but he is not evil. He regards the death of others to be a trivial matter, but he does not kill needlessly. To characters who treat him with respect, he is honorable and tolerant. Those who attack him or try his patience though, are met with a few snaps of his fingers. He may snap his fingers only once in order to weaken all those around him and to demonstrate his power. Play him as a reasonable but extremely powerful entity, someone the heroes can deal with but not defeat or ignore.
–Everway Gamemastering Guide, 32

Think about that description… would you include this guy in your games? Is he “fair” to the players? Is the GM on a power trip when using this guy? What good does it do to put things in the game PCs are completely gonna get stomped by? And other questions…

Maybe I’ll pick up with that thought tomorrow. Check back.

And as always, thanks for reading.

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10 responses

  1. I am not sure why you might be bummed out by the argument you cite (Quantum Ogre)… It doesn’t sound like you run games where your players leave the game feeling dissatisfied because they were either robbed of choice, or conversely ‘had no idea what was going on.’

    I tend to think the argument of Player Agency just clouds the real issue which I see to be one of Intentions. When we strip the external elements away (those being the magician’s force, planning, improvisation, and metagaming) what we are left with is the history of actions in the game (the story) and the intent for those actions to be taken in the first place.

    The desire to have that story show coherence, and the sort of interesting escalation of challenge that novels do tends to rise and fall in groups over time. GMs and Players both tend to flow back and forth between a desire for the group to range wherever it will, and a desire for that ranging to ‘have a point.’

    At a certain stage, the hobby seems to have split along lines which has one side treat the idea of there being a consistent and escalating (moving toward a logical climax) story as a core principle, and the other treat the idea of player agency as a core principle. Things get confusing, because *unless the GM prepares for the game in specific ways*, you can’t have both or a mixture – you have to have one or the other. Not everyone has the time and/or interest to prepare according to those specific requirements.

    My mechwarrior campaign, for example, is very much a sandbox, and my players are not used to the pure form of that sort of environment. I think much of what they have done in the past has been more narrative, with a story in motion and points of decision wherein they can have a serious impact on the direction that story takes. So unused to (or perhaps out of practice with) the freedom and responsibility of true sandbox play were they, that in one of our process review conversations, they essentially asked me to move more toward a narrative approach. The reasons were based in the amount of time they had to devote to the game, and a preference to have clear choices to make. The goal originally was to let them start and run their own revolution, but has been modified to be to let them be major players in a revolution.

    By comparison, my last Call of Cthulhu campaign was very narrative in flavour, players were very restricted in what they could run and, once in the game, could effectively choose to do if they wanted their characters to participate in and ultimately prevent the grand events which were building. Despite the pressure of the story on the players, everyone was content – right up to and beyond their sacrifice of themselves to save the world. The goal was to be an active participant in an exciting and powerful story from inception to conclusion.

    I think that where things begin to grind is not really in the idea of whether players have freedom to choose the woods with no Ogre, but if choosing the woods with with no Ogre will produce the desired effect for the group. If they want to be a part of a cool campaign of heroic fantasy, and choose (either by skill or by luck) to avoid heroics, from what will they draw their satisfaction…?

    Personally, I prefer to shape tales around the characters the players build, shape stories around the goals we want to achieve with the game, and to balance preparation with improvisation to provide an engaging and challenging game experience full of real risk, logical consequences, and hard-won reward. I don’t edit my preparation to value the story over in-game choices, but I do edit the course of the campaign to keep the characters as the focal point. If the characters fail, it has become a tale where the heroes failed. So be it. I feel a great deal of pleasure when that approach results in a great story arc, but can get good enjoyment from a more ‘days in the life of the characters’ approach as well.

    Your initial point about gear is a strong influence on this, I think. If gear has no real value – what else is irrelevant?

  2. I think your answer may indeed be here:

    “Everything is mythic”

    That should include gear. Think of the mythic examples we have. Heroes in myth have some gear but they’re not defined by their possessions. Their gear is arguably an extension of their abilities, not a bonus bolted on after the fact. Color your game to that fashion and you should find the sweet spot.

  3. @Runeslinger
    Again, you made my point better than I did. I appreciate that.

    I agree with you that intention is a big part of it. I suppose what upsets me, “bums me out” out the player agency conversation is the intentions implied. Basically:

    1. that the DM is a jerk if he interferes in any way with complete player freedom…

    and

    2. that it is somehow a competition at the table between the players and the DM to “Control” the narrative.

    Because at my table, we all came to play together.

    I think that part of the implicit agreement of an RPG is that the DM is entrusted with running the game — the players invest authority in the DM (within reason) and willingly hand over a small part of their agency in exchange for having someone actually do all the work of running the game. In exchange, the DM gets to be a part of the storytelling process. It seems pretty reasonable to me.

    It’s pretty much just the “Don’t be a jerk” rule written for gaming.

    More importantly — I also agree with you — groups want different things as the game goes along. I’ve played (like you) with groups who loved to have the reins and were in control of where the story went — but I’ve also been with groups who were unhappy with having a bundle of choices and wanted a little direction.

    Now I realize (I do) that the quantum ogre argument is more about the whole — the DM shouldn’t constantly be “switching it up” so that player choice doesn’t matter. I agree, that’s true. But it goes too far (in my opinion) to say that a DM who shapes the story sometimes is a bad guy who is ruining player fun. That’s just not a statement that can be made with complete accuracy.

    It’s a give and take situation. The PCs need to have control and the assurance that their in-game actions matter. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of the DM completely. I’ve always taken the stance that the DM is a part of the gaming group — not a different entity. I don’t play DMPC’s, though we often have long running NPCs that the party chooses to latch on to. That’s not what I mean. I mean that the DM comes to the game for the exact same reason as the players — to play and have fun and depending on your position on the spectrum, be a part of the story.

    If the DM is coming to the game to “lord it over players” or to play “gotcha” games with them — then the players should get a new DM. It’s really that simple in my mind. I think the quantum ogre is just an overstating of the rule for DMs, “it’s not all about you.”

    And that’s it.

    @Kevin
    I agree with your point completely. That’s my problem, actually. A little playtesting/questioning has shown me that gear matters. Maybe not to a D&D level to all players, but gear matters. I mean, the guy in full plate with an ancient, mythic weapon should have different advantages and disadvantages from the guy with the rapier and no shirt on… and as much as I’m down with “rulings” I’ve found that for many players it’s more comfortable to know something about how your gear/choices are going to impact the game-play ahead of time.

    And that’s really the crux of my problem. How can I make gear “matter” and somewhat consistent without pages and pages of armor and weapon rules? Right now, it’s a struggle for me. Heck, designing my magic system was easier than this.

  4. That’s a tough question actually, and it really boils down to where the important (and significant) factors lie in your game concept.

    If you’re aiming for a more thematic feel, then within reason, the alignment of gear to concept should grant bonuses regardless of the “nature” of the gear per se. However, the significance of that bonus may still be negligible even though it’s present.

    An example would be how an epic Robin Hood would fare with a peasant’s bow in a tourney versus how he’d fare with a bow crafted by a master. Thematically there should be little difference since Robin’s skill is so vastly superior (numerically) to any bonus the bow could bring to the table that the percentage uptick would be lost as an insignificant factor. (i.e. Robin is skilled beyond measure regardless of which bow he uses be it mundane or masterwork.)

    In the same fashion, Robin Hood with a dart or a hammer doesn’t rise to the same level because there’s no alignment of character concept to gear; he may be skilled in hand to hand combat, but with an hammer he’s arguably no better than a “normal” person.

    Now take the same Robin and place a mythic bow in his hands (say Apollo’s Bow for example) or even a really good made (and weighted properly) axe and you’ve got to do something to make what the bow or the axe brings to the table significant because those bonuses are no longer overshadowed by the skill and concept of the character.

    In like fashion, place Mjolnir in Robin’s hands and the significance of the bonuses that the hammer brings to the table far outweigh those of both Robin’s skill as well as alignment to concept and therefore the hammer itself becomes the focus where the numeric factors lie.

    In these examples theme, concept and feel are the overriding deciders on what gives a bonus and where the significant factors lie. Of course, if you’re aiming for a more crunchy, number significant system where the desire is a balance based on the rules and not on concept, you have to take a different path (like that of D&D.)

    Neither direction is better or wrong, each just places the emphasis on different things.

    Hopefully I’m making even the slightest of sense, my involvement in the Quantum Ogre discussions have left me a bizarre mix of entirely focused and clear of purpose, but also bit addled these past few days.

  5. Don’t worry, you’re making good sense — and I appreciate the input. As I was reading your comment I was nodding along and agreeing. I think you’ve articulated a good important part of the problem. It may be that the important thing you’ve illuminated here is the importance of concept as player choice. The joke I made about my magic system was all about how the magic system was “easy” because it was all about players being aware they were making choices ahead of time and accepting those choices.

    So… what that could mean for gear is something along the lines of…

    I don’t need to worry about the stealth penalty to wearing plate armor as a specific modifier so much as articulate (as to the part gear plays in the game) that a player taking plate armor is making a choice that leans away from stealth… and towards combat defense. I don’t want players to become locked into this in ugly and rigid ways — but I do want/need to emphasize that the role of gear (weapons, armor, tools) is connected to concept — without making it a straightjacket.

    Thank you. That helped get me moving in the right direction again.

  6. Thanks, glad I’m not just wandering the thought-space in a pointless meander.

    I don’t think I’ve ever said, or perhaps ever even realized it, but the idea of concept as always greater than anything gear brings to the table is at the core of something I dislike about the way most D&D games I’ve experienced have turned out.

    At some point Mathelleus Ampherenes the swashbuckling hero with the rapier wit becomes the equivalent of “some dude with a +4 rapier”… gee how heroic, invariably, at least once per session I’m essentially playing the gear, not the character.

    Arguably this may not be the intended design of the game and is due to the way it breaks down based on story focus, but it strikes me as a core fault because that’s what tends to happen at least once per game.

    In fact, that may be why, given that I’ve created 3 RPGs: KORE, d6-lite (in all it’s thematic versions), and Astrolomancer, gear is not really something addressed in detail other than to grant a minor bonus (KORE) or mimic another power (Astrolomancer) and in one (d6-lite) gear is entirely non-existent in the rules.

  7. @ morrisonmp
    “Because at my table, we all came to play together”

    Amen!
    The road rash some of the more strident proponents of a ‘one true way’ bear from being dragged behind the self-aggrandizing horse of some needlessly egotistical and adversarial DM is often the only message I take away from some of the otherwise good debates about Player Agency. It may just be me, and this is a sudden observation, but my impression is, that the style of play that group supports more often leads to player vs GM mentalities, and the rise of the killer GM. While that environment can breed some really skillful and attentive players, it also leads to a feeling of competition against the scenario that I feel saps the ability to immerse in it.

    Things always seem to boil down to trade-offs.

    @ morrisonmp & Kevin
    One of the things that surprised me about Ubiquity was actually that it eased my reaction to what Kevin described as “dude with a +4 rapier” when I was only tangentially aware that that sort of mechanism annoyed me. In the end, gear is a force multiplier for something be it stealth, stabbing, or statesmanship, but the expression of that assistance plays a heavy roll in how it is perceived.

    +4 leans heavily toward a focus on the tool (D&D), adding dice to the appropriate Rating leans toward a focus on the character (Ubiquity), and adding tags (Technoir) leans toward a focus on the trade-offs of one tool over another.

  8. I think, maybe, the gear thing is also at the heart of my frustration with D&D. Even with my current Pathfinder games, I find that the emphasis on gear is very frustrating.

  9. Strange that recently I find myself taking the lesser traveled path of advocating for recreating D&D without levels.

    Which at first blush looks to be in direct opposition to my stated hatred of playing the gear by placing gear and treasures plundered from adventuring into the very role of the gains currently realized from XP and level advancement.

  10. Nope scratch that last thought. Re-reading my own thoughts and notes have cleared up my own confusion on what at first appears to be an inconsistency.

    In a level-less D&D the gear may indeed be useful, but not necessary, to overcome an opponent because opponents also won’t be needlessly escalated in power.

    My bad. Carry on.

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