Review: The Everlasting, Book of the Unliving

Copyright Aaron Smalley © 2004

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

"The Everlasting has the most intriguing setting I have ever seen in my 25 years of participating in and GMing RPG's"

Just over five years ago, a friend of mine picked up a couple of books at GenCon that are simply mind-boggling. The first one of the series (of which the book was just recently published) is entitled The Everlasting, Book of the Unliving. This review will attempt to explain what is contained within these pages, as it is unlike any other role-playing game I have seen in my over 20 years of active gaming. This is a bit of a change from the past few reviews that I've done, having been for systems that are free to download from the internet; these books are not so cheap to lay your eyes upon.

For starters, the books are a little on the expensive side. Despite the $29.95 price tag that I had paid for each of these 300+ pages of large soft cover books, it was money well spent. The artwork, while black and white on the interior, is superior in quality and feel to anything else that I have seen put out (including the D&D 3E material). They range from barely discernable images in the background of the text to large full-page pictures; many of incredible (albeit "dark" or "Gothic") nature at the beginning of each chapter. Nearly every page has at least something of minute interest. Some of these pictures have the feel of ancient illuminated books from centuries ago, while other, more modern pictures, have at least some mythic symbolism to them.

The Everlasting will likely fascinate anyone who has used the White Wolf's products. They will also likely recognize the name of Steven Brown, who had authored some of their books as a freelancer. However, the world he opens your eyes to with The Everlasting is amazing and yet mysterious, enthralling yet sinister. The very liberal use of quotes from literary works, too numerous to mention here, only adds to the flavor and feel of the "Secret World", as he calls it. Some aspects (especially the Book of the Spirits) will appeal to those who have an interest in the Cthulhu Mythologies, or an interest in Animistic or Shamanistic Lore. Those who have an interest in the Highlander series of movies or TV shows, Angels or Grail Nights, as well as Greek/Roman/Norse/Celtic/Inca/Mayan/etc. mythology, will likely find the Book of the Light an interesting read. These other books will be reviewed over the coming months.

This Secret World that he presents is not a fantasy world that is hard to believe could ever have existed, like so many settings for role-playing games that have been produced. But then, as Steve says, "it is a Legendmaking Experience (or 'mythic experience')". It is "Constructive Escapism" at its best. At the beginning of nearly every chapter he has a short half-page blurb as an introduction across from the beautiful artwork previously mentioned, that starts out with "Do you believe in...?" This sets the stage to make the subject of the chapter as believable as it can be within our modern world of Scientific Methodology. His use of terminology only adds to this feel, with the likes of Protagonist (as opposed to "character") or Antagonist as opposed to "Villainous Non-Player Character". The list of these terms is also too long to go into here.

The entire presentation is built upon the concept of constructing a Personal Mythology or a Hero's Journey. It is to develop a story more than to act out a series of combats and puzzles; to take on the persona of one of the Everlasting, who reside amongst the common humans undetected. He has taken his cues from the great Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth, who in turn followed in the footsteps of the great Sir James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. The first chapter explains in depth the concept of these ideas, as well as the most intuitive, spiritual, and inner-thinking explanation of what a Role-Playing Game is.

The actual game system will only be glossed over here, as he has provided "Guidelines" not rules, with several different formats. These range from using d% for action resolution to a completely dice-less system, from using d12's to using playing cards, or, my personal favorite as it adds greatly to the mythic and mysterious feel of the Secret World, the use of Tarot cards as your randomizers. The most amazing part of it is that different players can use different systems at the same time, to get similar results. These guidelines are flexible and are useful in determining a "degree of success"; thus it is possible to barely pull off a maneuver, perform a skill with amazing ease, or to fail miserably.

The Guidelines are only meant as a way to help further the Legendmaking experience, with the actual Journey being the central part of the experience. Having reviewed the Fudge system a while back, it is the only other system of mechanics that is as story-oriented or as flexible as The Everlasting that I have seen in quite some time. However, where Fudge lacks a solid setting, The Everlasting has the most intriguing setting I have ever seen in my 25 years of participating/GMing RPG's. Being a huge Rolemaster fan myself, I would be tempted (if time permitted) to use the Secret World with the Rolemaster system. However, it would take incredible amounts of work to flesh out the details and it would still not have the same feel as it does using some of the guidelines that Steve suggests.

One might be tempted to wonder if the immersive nature of The Everlasting might be a little too deep for some people, and you would probably be correct. As a matter of fact, on the page facing the table of contents (in all four of the books so far published) Steve has provided an "Important Warning". It clearly states that it is an experience in make-believe and is intended for having fun. He warns that it is for entertainment purposes only. As he says: "Do not let dreams of fantasy compromise your real life and enjoy yourself in a safe manner." But on the other hand, he has done such an excellent job of immersing the reader into this Secret World it is no wonder that he includes that warning.

The vast majority of the book covers the concepts of the various Genos orGentes (pl.), or races of the Everlasting, that can be played, and the details of how they fit into this Secret World. Each of the four books of The Everlasting publishedso far (Book of the Undead, Book of the Light, Book of the Spirits, and Book of the Fantastical) contain the same material through roughly half the book: the Guidelines, the concepts of what The Everlasting is (Hero's Journey, etc.), overall notes on the Secret World and the art of Story Telling and "Guiding an Odyssey".

Each of the books contain three chapters that each cover in alphabetical order one of the races of Everlasting that are intended for use as Protagonists within the Legendmaking Experience. Then there are more chapters that cover other beings that are intended to add further depth to the already incredible Secret World. Some of these can also be used as Protagonists, if the Guide will allow it (although some are intended for use as the Antagonists that the Protagonists will be battling against within the Hero's Journey).

The first of the Gente's covered in the Book of the Undead are the Ghuls. These are a race of Everlasting who start out as common people that have such an unbearable desire for immortality that they go to great lengths to secure the secrets of, and then drink, Anecro, also known as the "Elixir of Undeath". The story behind the development of this vile concoction is covered within this chapter, as are the effects of drinking it. All that quaff this liquid die a short time later, while a few lucky/unlucky (depending on how you categorize these unfortunates) souls go through a metamorphosis that converts them into one of several forms of Ghuls. These creatures, while gaining the potential for immortality (of sorts), also undergo some very gruesome changes. One of these changes is the need to consume raw and recently deceased flesh. They must do this to maintain their Animus (the magickal force that maintains their existence) and thus continue to live in the undeath form that they have taken on. These beings are also one of the primary inhabitants of the Underworld. Before you point out the misspelling of the word magical, that is how it appears in all the books (with an explanation as to why he chose that spelling).

Due to the nature of Ghul existence, their Torment is that of Degeneration. This is the slow and agonizing fading of their remaining humanity. It is the mental degradation and physical deterioration that slowly tortures their soul for the rest of eternity. At this point, you may be thinking, "why do they suffer from this torment?" The answer to this question is that it is the price that is paid for the journey into and existence within the Secret World as well as the immortality that goes along with it (as torturous as it may be). All the Gente's of the Everlasting suffer from some sort of Torment. As every hero has a flaw and everything has its price, the price for being a member of the Secret World is the particular races' Torment.

The next race of Everlasting covered is the Revenant. They are souls who have cheated death by somehow managing to come back to the world of the living after death through several possible avenues. Among these is being able to re-inhabit their own bodies (think of The Crow) for some purpose. Another way is for their soul to move into the body of another recently deceased person and take it over, usually through some planned and foul means. Then there is the most desirable way (as far as fitting in among the living), which is to barter with a Ghaddar for a living body. The Ghaddar are a type of Ghul that kidnaps living humans and takes them down the dark road to the Underworld, where their soul is exchanged for that of the Revenant who is willing to pay the Ghaddar's fee, as well as the fee for passage to and from the Underworld. This makes the spirit of the deceased able to return to the world of the living in a live body. The torment of the Revenants is Detachment, or the growing feeling of loosing touch with the world of the living. One effect of this is that when a Revenant looks into a mirror, they see their own rotting and decomposing body, rather than the body that they currently inhabit.

There is an additional type of Revenant that is quite unlike the others, in that they return to the world of the living for the sole purpose of recovering the souls of Revenants who are there by treachery (as is the case with nearly all of them). These "recoverers" of souls are referred to as Abaddon or "Grim Reapers" and it is their lot in the afterlife to bring back those dead souls who are supposed to be spending eternity in the underworld. They are not evil (despite the "Death" connotation that surrounds them), but are performing a needed service in the workings of the Secret World; after all, death is just another part of life. They also come to the lands of the living to claim the souls of normal people who have recently "passed-on".

Revenants are much like the vampires of legend and are often mistaken as such. However they do not have fangs and instead of drinking the blood of the living, they drain the life force from the living so that they can maintain their Animus, and thus continue to exist within the world of the living. This draining of life force results in the premature aging of the victim.

Next are the Vampires who, unlike in the White Wolf games where they are the dark heroes who can do what they want in a contrived and inconsistent world, can be powerful, but they too have a Torment that they must struggle with on a regular basis. The torment of the Vampires is Damnation: the internal struggle over the vile acts that that they partake of to survive.

A sample quote used in the book:

My agony was unbearable. Never since I was a human being had I felt such mental pain. It was because all of Lestat's words had made sense to me. I knew peace only when I killed, only for that minute; and there was no question in my mind that the killing of anything less than a human being brought nothing but a vague longing, the discontent which had brought me closer to humans, to watch their lives through glass.

-Louis, Interview with a Vampire, by Anne Rice

Vampires come in three varieties within The Everlasting. The first is the Genitors, or founders of a bloodline. These are individuals who have committed some vile and gruesome act that has resulted in their eternal damnation. These include such people as Vlad the Impaler (or Dracula), Elizabeth Bathory the Decapitator (from Peruvian mythology), Lamia (from Greek mythology), Lilith, Czarnobog (or Nosferatu), and others. Each of these Genitors is the head of a bloodline or Consanguinity. Many of the Genitors are believed to no longer exist by their Scions, however nothing definite is defined within the books, so it is up the "Guide" to determine such things within the game being run (not intended as player Protagonists).

Then there are the Scions. They are humans who have been transformed into vampires through a dark means. While they are the servants of the Genitors, they are the more common vampires. They are what any protagonist vampire will likely be, as they are powerful, yet have been condemned by their master. They have amazing powers and abilities. They must feed upon the blood of the living to maintain their Animus. Sunlight is (usually, but there are exceptions based on bloodline) also draining on them and they must rest during the daylight, for a minimum of four hours (at penalties) but eight hours is best.

The third type are the Dhampirs, or "Living Vampires" who have not been converted into true vampires, however they have many of the vampiric abilities, yet are not of the unliving, and can freely walk among the living without problems. They are often created as agents of more powerful vampires, which can act more freely among the world of the living and can be out in daylight with minimal discomfort. They do not posses the grace that true vampires do, and they need real food, air, and normal sleep.

Among the additional Gentes covered within the book are the Dead Souls and the Reanimates. While they are not intended to be played as Protagonists, the rules are there (although a little on the vague side) so that they can be used as such.

Dead Souls are the spirits of the deceased. Some travel on to the underworld where they spend the remainder of eternity. Others who are restless for one reason or another are sometimes trapped between the world of the living and the underworld. They are unable to completely enter either and are doomed to relive the events of their death or some action that they had taken in life that will haunt them until they manage to make amends. Many of these restless souls that are trapped between the world of the living and the Underworld do not even realize that they are dead. Still others are able to return to the lands of the living through the use of various dark means (see description for Revenants and Reanimates).

The next genos covered are the Reanimates, which come in a variety of forms. These include Flesh Freaks (Frankenstein's Monster types of reanimated body parts stitched together and inhabited by Dead Souls), Golems (Dead Souls who have been implanted into and bonded with objects of a normally inanimate nature such as statues), and Deathmechs (deceased bodies that are combined with automated machines that have a Dead Soul bound into them as the controlling intelligence). Unfortunately they are only glossed over in the book, with only marginal details given. However, if a person wanted to create such a protagonist for a game, it would not be too difficult to flesh out (no pun intended) the creature using what is available in the book.

All in all, the book is well worth the money in my opinion (and I tend to be cheap when it comes to spending money). However, be warned that the editing of the books leaves something to be desired. While spelling and grammatical errors occur, they are not so bad as to take away from the feel of the books. If you purchase this book, also be careful with the binding, as mine gave out relatively quickly. The other three Everlasting books, however, seemed to hold up quite well (so far). The system(s) are secondary to the setting in my option, but they all seem to be usable and workable, even if they are a little cumbersome at first. The setting is staggering in scope and coverage, and the only drawback I see here is the lack of speed that they are being released at, but that is to be expected with a "small press" game that has a small following and no big-dollar marketing-powerhouse behind it.

One other area that I see a problem with is the character sheet provided in the back of the books. They are beautifully done and incorporate the mythic symbol that he has chosen for the particular book displayed within the center, however they are not as well organized as they could be. A newer and much better looking, as well as better organized, character sheet is available for free download from the publisher at http://www.visionaryentertainment.com/. When you visit their web site be sure that the volume is turned down, as they tend to have animations with music on the opening pages.

Overall, on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd have to give it a 7.5 for playability and a resounding 10 for the setting, despite the fact that it is not original, but it is the most well structured use of past and present mythologies that I have ever seen. No other setting that I've seen has ever come close to this!!!