Thursday, June 7, 2018

Five or So Questions on Gather: Children of Evertree

Today I've got an interview with Stephen Dewey on Gather: Children of the Evertree, a freeform GM-less game currently on Kickstarter. Gather sounds like a really fascinating game and uses one of my favorite mechanics: asking questions. Check it out!


a box and individual card with the text Gather: Children of the Evertree on it, fully illustrated.
Gather: Children of the Evertree box set.
Tell me a little about Gather: Children of the Evertree. What excites you about it?

Gather: Children of the Evertree is a worldbuilding game built around a freeform/LARP style of play. I call it a "roundtable LARP" because while you'll be immersed and in-character from start to finish you're still sitting around a table with friends while you play. In Gather, you take on the role of Speakers - each of you an elected representative chosen by your respective Kinship or community - that have crossed the vastness of the Evertree to attend an annual meeting known as the Gather. In theory, the Gather is a great idea. Every year the Kinships of the Evertree may send a Speaker to go the Gather and discuss the previous year, talk about shifts and changes, discuss the affairs of the world, and so on. However, the Gather is a meeting so saturated with laws and customs that trying to conduct this meeting is often frustrating, limited, and feels almost alien and otherworldly (to the players) in its execution. The rules that govern the Gather don't only limit what you can talk about, but how you can talk about it.

Practically, the game is played out with a deck of cards. The game is GM-less, zero prep, you just draw the first card and dive right in. The cards explain how to play, provide a little bit of information about the world in which you live, and then present the heart of the game - a number of Question cards. You'll draw a card, ask the question to the group, and then the answers to these questions form the "discussion" of the Gather. What's exciting about this is that every question and answer helps to shape the world around this meeting. Not just in abstract ways, but in how the world relates to the Kinships gathered at the meeting. We see the world through their eyes, and that's what shapes it. A few small pieces of setting at the start, along with the questions, provide the edges of the world, but you fill in the rest of it as you play - what's going on in this world, how do these Kinships interact, what threats are out there, what has happened, what is going to happen. It's all hashed out as you play, and presented as it relates to the people who live within the world. In that way, the world is built less by images on a map, and more by the relationships and connections that fill it, which means that the parts of the world that you're going to really dig into and flesh out are the ones that you're interested in, and that you want to see more of.

How did you write the question cards and keep them from being boring or repetitive?

Every time you play, you're playing with twenty question cards. Twenty-one if you count "By what name is your Kinship called?" which is always the introductory example question given near the start of each session to get players accustomed to how questions are asked and answered. Of the twenty remaining questions, five are set. Essentially, how large is your Kinship, what do you have a lot of, what do you have a shortage of, how many have joined your Kinship this past year, and how many have left or died. Thematically, these five questions were the ones asked at the very first Gather ever to be held, and so they have been asked at every Gather since. Conveniently, these also help players setup the boundaries and pillars of the world and Kinships so we can see the stakes we're working with.

Beyond these, there are fifteen additional question cards. There are pulled, at random, from a deck of fifty when you're setting up for your session. Thematically, these are questions that have been asked at other Gathers that have come and gone in previous years, since each time the Gather meets a new question is added to the collection (more on that in a bit). This provides you with a lot of variation when you play. Every time you sit down for a session you could choose to revisit a Kinship you've played before, or make one entirely new, and this may change how you play and the interactions you have with others. However, changing what the questions are from session to session and, just as importantly, changing the order in which they're asked will drastically alter how players approach the game, and the themes that are present at your table.

After these twenty question cards have been gone through, every player has a chance to ask one question of their own design to the group. Once these have all been asked and answered, a vote is held, and a single player-generated question is added permanently to the game for a chance to be asked at all future Gathers.

Tell me more about the Kinships. How are they made up? What meaning do they have?

Your Kinship is the community, family, guild, nation, or assembly that you have come to the Gather on behalf of. It's your job to represent your Kinship as their Speaker. Every player takes the role of a Speaker, each of them from a different far-flung Kinship scattered across the Evertree. To take up the role of Speaker is a heavy responsibility because within the Gather you don't even speak as an individual. Every word you speak carries the weight of your entire Kinship behind it, so it is tradition to hear Speakers use words like "we", "us", and "our" rather than "I" and "me".

Kinships start as nothing more than a name. While you're learning how to play the game players are given an introductory example question which is: "By what name is your Kinship called?" Everyone then has the opportunity to name their Kinship. You know a little bit about the world at that point, about the Evertree in which you reside, but beyond that the name of your Kinship is entirely up to you. You'll announce it, and then write it down on a notecard for all to see. Maybe you're The Branch Tenders. Maybe you're The Forgotten. Maybe you're the Astral Cardinals. Maybe you're Those Whom The Rot Found. Whatever you'd like. After the Kinships are named however, and you start into the first few questions of the Gather, magic happens and these communities that didn't even have a name fifteen minutes ago suddenly come to life. All of the Gathers questions relate back to these Kinships, how they're doing, what they need, and what they have to offer, so every time someone answers a question you learn a little bit more about what that Kinship is, who they are, and how their little corner of the world works.

Video by Galactic Network talking with Stephen about Gather.

How does player interfacing with the layers of tradition and rules at the Gather influence storytelling?

To really explain this, let's delve a bit into the mechanics behind the Gather, because how the "laws" of the Gather force you to engage in this meeting directly influence how storytelling takes shape. Once players have gotten past the setting cards and the "how to play" cards they're left with the core of the game - the question cards. When a Speaker flips a question card they read it aloud. As an example, the question might be "Has war been brought upon you by another this past year, whether by words, stones, powder, or hex?" All of the Speakers then consider their answer to this question, and at the moment the Speaker who read the question discards the card all of the Speakers answer the question on behalf of their Kinship in unison. This unified answering is a critical component of the laws that govern the Gather as a sign of respect to all Kinships. No one Kinship's voice is more important than another. Every Speaker begins the game with three tokens, and after this cacophonous answer is given to a question, Speakers may offer their tokens to their fellow Speakers, offering them to anyone they'd like to hear more from. This could be if you heard someone give an intriguing answer through the din, or for any number of other reasons. Once all of these tokens have been handed out, if you've been granted such a token (and have accepted it) you have the opportunity to state your answer once more. This time, you'll say it by yourself, and may elaborate on it if you'd like.

For example, if you heard me say something about hexes amid the united answer, you might offer me a token to hear more because hey, hexes are cool. If accepted I would repeat my answer and elaborate on it. For instance, I might say "Yes, a war of hexes. We believe the Rotchildren have laid a hex upon our crops. They do not grow, they only crumble and spoil in the fields." Maybe I've just called out another one of the Kinships at the table, or maybe I've invented a new one. Now that I've given my answer, any Speaker may offer me another token to speak further, but these must be paired with a question. If I accept the token I must answer the question. So, you might ask me: "Believe? Do you have any proof that it was the Rotchildren?" If I accept your token, I'll respond. "Technically, no. But we know the ways of the Rotchildren. This is how they work. Everywhere they travel in the Evertree they bring destruction with them. They have always looked on our lands with envy." Again, any Speaker might offer me a token with a new question, and this will continue until either all questions have been asked and answered or until I refuse to answer a question. Perhaps the Speaker for the Rotchildren offers me a token and asks "And who exactly did that land of yours belong to before you stole it away?" If I hold up my hand and refuse to answer (sometimes a far more dramatic choice than answering) my time to speak is done and we move on to the next Speaker who was given one of the initial tokens.

While everything outside of the question cards and the initial setting information is entirely improvised and created by the players during play, this playstyle of questions and answers creates built-in prompts for storytelling to build off of. You're never presented with a blank canvas and told to "go!" instead you're guided more easily into collaborative storytelling by building off of each other's prompts, questions, and answers.

What themes and setting elements do you think Gather does best, and what unusual possibilities are there to explore in the worldbuilding?

The structure of Gather's gameplay is very similar to the Evertree itself. A good way to think about the game is to think about the question cards and the answers given in unison as the trunk of the tree. These are the solid foundation of the world. A question tells us things about the world, and the answers tell us things about the Kinships. From there, players have the ability to go down these tangents of questions and answers, literally off-shooting from the trunk like branches. These branching paths of answers, questions, more answers, and more questions allow you to follow these paths of story and worldbuilding as far as you'd like, letting players focus in on what is cool to them and really digging into the threads that excite everyone, before coming back to the trunk and shooting off onto the next branch. Finally, when all the branches you want to explore have been explored, we move up the tree to the next piece of the trunk.

I know that freeform, live action, or improv-heavy games can be intimidating to more traditional tabletop groups, but as with many of my games I have endeavored to make Gather a more guided experience. It's like an improv with a safety net. Even if you're not quick on your feet with creating answers that doesn't matter as much because you can just speak quietly and let you half-answer get lost in the din. Not interested in exploring your thread further? You can always reject tokens. There are a lot of options here even for people who may not be as comfortable spinning worlds off the top of their heads.

What's especially fun to explore in the worldbuilding is that there are very few boundaries. This world can truly be what you'd like it to be. And even if you play the same Kinship session after session, that doesn't mean that anything about the world or the Kinships within it will stay the same. Are there societies and cities in the Evertree's branches? Are you human? Are you a nest of birds? Nearly anything is possible, so the possibilities from session to session are endless. I anticipate that this is a game that will fuel fantastic, terrifying, and beautiful concepts for Kinships that will keep you wanting to come back to the table with it to try out your next great idea.

The words "Gather: Children of the Evertree" in white over an image of yellow-green leaves on dark brown trees, looking up through them into the blue sky.
Lovely image of the Gather: Children of the Evertree title.

Thank you so much for the interview, Stephen! I hope you all enjoyed hearing about Gather: Children of the Evertree and that you'll check it out on Kickstarter today!

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