Now that I’m largely done with the work on Wasteland 2 (apart from some iterative work, clean up, and reactivity adds), I wanted to think about where I’m going next. I’ve found it’s useful to take stock when looking forward.
I’ve written a lot of things in my life, but there a few that really stand out in my memory (apart from my fiction).
Though I was a big fan of my early work (just because it was my early work, and evidence that I was working as a game designer) one of the first things I was truly proud of was TSR’s Birthright, my first published world, which took AD&D into a lower-fantasy setting and let you take the part of a ruler of a realm. Second was my work on the Planescape campaign setting, which allowed a huge degree of creative exploration. In that body of work, Monte Cook and I (along with our able editors, Ray Vallese and Michele Carter) were able to flesh out a significant part of the cosmology and background of the planes, defining and creating a foundation that would lead to my next big gig (and to Monte’s; not only did he help design D&D 3.0, he also produced an amazing string of successes, the latest of which is his Numenera setting).
Third, and perhaps most importantly, was Planescape: Torment. That’s almost certainly the work that people remember best, even if they don’t necessarily remember my name. Working on Planescape: Torment was… well, let’s turn on the Wayback Machine.
I came onto Torment as, I think, the fifth or sixth person when my Playstation Planescape game was canceled. It was a blow to lose my first lead designer gig, but it turned into a real education. The first members of the nascent team had been working on the game’s preproduction for a few months. At that time, it was called “Planescape: Last Rites”, a name that had to change because of the game “Last Rites.” But the concept remained largely the same, though it grew stronger and stranger as we progressed.
I must have been only about six or seven months out from my TSR gig, so Planescape was still fresh in my head, and I became the go-to guy for matters of Planescape lore. The team grew significantly as we ramped up production, and I became Chris Avellone’s second for a lot of issues; he and I worked closely enough that we’re still good friends, though we haven’t seen each other regularly for 12 years.
I learned a hell of a lot from Chris: how to structure a dialogue, how to build in some real reactivity, how to condense ideas and stories to deliver maximum impact. The best part is that he didn’t sit down to show me–he just did it near me. And even though he and I both loved the setting, we saw ways that we could tell the story better by deviating from it.
But that’s not really the point of this post. The point is that of all the games I’ve written, the one that I keep circling back to is Torment. And now that the bulk of my work on Wasteland 2 is largely complete (with some iteration work that still needs to be done), I can start thinking about Torment seriously.
What was most memorable for most players of the game? Based on the conversations I’ve had with friends and fans, the answers (at least from a design perspective) boil down to these. It:
* Turned RPG tropes on their heads (e.g. death is bad and requires a reload).
* Had a rich, amazing story.
* Displayed memorable, unique characters, especially the companions.
* Took place in a hugely different fantastic setting.
* Allowed small player choices to make real differences in the game world.
* Wasn’t about an epic battle between good and evil, but it did ask serious questions (like “What can change the nature of a man?”).
* Created strange, even living, items that you can talk to or interact with
The Planescape setting allowed us [or the player] to explore a deeper array of philosophical questions. But I think there are many settings that could host the Nameless One’s story or a similar one. Any setting that rewards the player for internal exploration (certainly deeper than, “Can I hit it? How much loot does it have?”) could host a similar story. As long as there’s a fantastical element to the world–whether straight fantasy or science-fantasy–these questions become possible and desirable. The farther away we stray from comfortable routine, the more likely we are to challenge ourselves, trying to define our place in the world. A boring setting frequently leads to boring questions; we know the drill and don’t have to examine it closely. But a fantastic setting forces us to re-examine the world, to take it in a fresh light, and to see that our fundamental truths may be flawed. *That* is at the heart of a Torment story.
The first step in designing a new Torment story is to ask the primary question. I’m older than I was when I worked on Torment, and my questions now are different than they were. I have children now, and I look at the world through their eyes and through mine, and that’s changed me – in fact, the intervening years have changed me so much that I have new answers for the central story in the original Torment. So now that I know what can change the nature of a man, I ask: What does one life matter? … and does it matter at all?
Then I’d re-examine the fundamentals of the setting. I’d put it someplace other than Planescape (and I’ll explain why in a followup). I’d use a system other than D&D, because I’d want to align the player’s story axes along different lines than Good/Evil or Law/Chaos to something more subjective. The core of Torment is, after all, a personal story, and while we can be judged by others on the basis of our actions, arbitrarily aligning those actions on an external and eternally fixed line removes some of the agency from the player’s game.
I have a lot of ideas about what to put into a new Torment game, but my primary goal would be to help the player tell a story that was evocative of the original Torment without aping it. To be faithful to the odyssey of the Nameless One, and to recognize that it has ended, and that stories of Torment are ongoing.
What would you want to see?