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Tales of Torment, Part 1

by Brother None, 2007-07-30

What can change the nature of a man? Often considered one of the greastest CRPGs ever made, Black Isle's magnum opus Planescape: Torment takes the familiarity of D&D and then turns things upside down with fantastical locations, bizarre characters and a dose of philosophy.

Our guest interviewer Brother None takes us on a retrospective trip with Lead Designer Chris Avellone and "second designer" Chris McComb in this two-part series, which includes some original documentation.

RPGWatch: Tell us a little about yourself and your role in making PS:T.

Chris Avellone: I’m Chris Avellone, Creative Director at Obsidian Entertainment – “Creative Director” is basically a shape-shifting designer, which allows me to change my design title at will depending on what game or project I'm contributing to at the moment. On the last project, I was senior designer on NWN2: Mast of the Betrayer, and now I'm the Creative Lead Designer on the forthcoming Aliens RPG from SEGA.

As far as Torment goes, I was lead designer (and doing work on Fallout 2 at the same time, which contributed to my near-constant level of exhaustion). As lead designer, I laid out the story, characters, dialogues, area layouts, item descriptions and design, scripting, concept art sketches for locations and items, voice casting, script reading, and contributed design and feedback to almost all of the design for the game. I led a team of about 7+ designers and interfaced with the other departments to get the game done with a lion’s share of help from our lead programmer Dan Spitzley and lead artist Tim Donley.

Thankfully, a number of folks who worked on Planescape came with us to Obsidian (Dan Spitzley, Aaron Meyers, Dennis Presnell, Brian Menze, Yuki Furumi, Scott Everts, etc.) and I am grateful for that.

Note that there are a lot of spoilers below, and I tried to mark most of them. If you intend to play the game, I'd suggest sticking to the opening questions and leaving the rest for later. I also included some extracted samples of the dialogue evolution in Planescape with one of the major NPCs for anyone who wants to check it out.

Colin McComb: My name is Colin McComb. I’ve been writing professionally in one sense or another since 1991. I started out as a designer at TSR, Inc, writing Dungeons & Dragons supplements and creating campaign settings like Birthright and being heavily involved in other campaign settings like Planescape, which is how I went to Interplay in the first place. I was originally hired there as the lead designer on a Playstation Planescape title, similar to King's Field, but when that title was canceled, they shuffled me off to some Planescape PC title called "Last Rites". Chris Avellone was the only designer on it before then, so I tell everyone now that I was the “second designer”, as if that were some official title or indicator of quality… and hey, I got on the promo poster, so that was a bonus.

Anyway, now I’m working on a novel (just like everyone, only I think I’m farther along than most other unpublished authors are), some short stories that I take out and polish and then put away again, and a secret project about which I cannot say too much because the details have not been officially finalized, and damn, isn’t that just mysterious?


Background and Tech

RPGWatch: What were your experiences with the consequences of working with an "outside" IP?

Chris Avellone: Every franchise I've worked with to date (including Star Wars in Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and now, the Aliens RPG) has been pretty painless, and Torment was no exception. For Planescape, I recall we had one meeting with Monte Cook and some of the reps from Wizards/TSR, and I think they had one comment at the end of the presentation ("will Sigil be diverse in terms of the characters you see?") and that was about it. They may have secretly hated everything we showed them, but if so, it was a big secret.

I think as long as you take the time to understand the license and sell your ideas so they make sense in the franchise, it’s not hard to work with a licensor. For Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, we received little to no comments on the game design whatsoever (I think the most comments we got was the initial build of the Devaronian model, and they noted some places where we’d switched Atton’s name with his old version). In any event, the approval process for the game design went through pretty quickly.

Colin McComb: I thought it was great, obviously. I mean, Interplay was pushing hard on the Planescape line. They'd hired David "Zeb" Cook before me, and he was the creator of the setting (never mind the complicated lineage of 1st Edition, Manual of the Planes, or the initial in-house product proposal at TSR; Zeb was the guy who actually designed the campaign setting). I had been extensively involved with Planescape almost from its inception, and Monte Cook and I had taken over primary design duties when Zeb left TSR. When I made the decision to move to California, I did it with TSR's blessing. Interplay was quick to hire me for the aforementioned Playstation game as another expert on the line.

In short, I was hired to assure TSR that the license was in good hands, and the presence of Zeb and me ensured that there was a minimum of meddling from outside. Plus, we had the TSR Planescapers down to show them what we were working on, and they loved it. As Chris said, if they secretly hated it, they kept it secret from me too.

RPGWatch: Planescape: Torment was never developed to be a huge hit. How much involvement or interference was there from the suits of the company?

Chris Avellone: As far as being a huge hit, I think everyone wanted Torment to sell very well (it made a profit, but not a huge one, and certainly not anywhere near Baldur's Gate numbers).

Still, there were a number of elements that I think hurt it in the long run:

- Not an accessible setting. It's not a fantasy world that is comfortable for players to settle into, and we did not take pains to make it comfortable (no dwarves, elves, or halflings, as one minor example).

- Story-heavy in the wrong ways. It has a slow start, and while the momentum does pick up in the Hive, there's a lot of reading, and people don't buy games to read, they buy games to play them.

- Marketing. The box of the product reinforces #1 above - it says, "hey, we're strange," rather than promoting it as a role-playing game using the Baldur's Gate engine, which probably would have made it a more interesting target to the game community.

As far as interference-from-above goes, we probably could have used more than we had - like Fallout, Torment was sort of under the radar for a while, and the producer role changed several times over the course of the project. Brian Fargo was mostly hands off, except to complement us on the writing, and give me a pretty stern lecture (deservedly) about the localization costs for the game. Feargus was also concerned about how much it slipped over the course of the development cycle, and those weren't fun discussions.

Colin McComb: As far as I know, a surprisingly small amount compared to the amount of money they spent on us. We had to do a few dog-and-pony shows for game magazines, a couple of presentations for the investors, but from my perspective, the executives didn't get too involved with our development cycle, focused as they were on the big money titles like Fallout 2, Stonekeep 2, and the games on the other side of the building. Chris might have a different story, since he was a step higher on the ladder, and he may simply have performed the valuable service of protecting all his designers from any spatters from above. I certainly never felt that we were being jogged or pushed in any one particular direction especially.

RPGWatch: Do you feel the Infinity Engine was a good engine to build a AD&D game on (especially in the sense of combat, but also in whatever other sense you wish to discuss)?

Chris Avellone: For Planescape, hell(s) yes, because most environments could be painted, which is one of the only ways to fully realize some of the Planescape locations. Also, because the Infinity Engine was already so heavily D&D focused, that made a lot of the content creation much easier. I do recall discovering some surprises in the Infinity Engine, but Bioware was pretty open about sending down advisors and helpers at points during the project to assist us with the functionality and features of the editor so we didn’t get turned around (they did the same on Knights of the Old Republic II as well).

Colin McComb: I was not especially thrilled with the way combat felt in the Infinity Engine, but I write this off to my predilection for the immediate rush of first-person shooters, and the fact that the AD&D rules are in themselves a shorthand for that immediacy as well. I have always felt that the biggest problem with tabletop gaming is the pure nitpickery of slogging through combat; entire sessions have been wasted on a single battle. Computer gaming should, in theory, create a seamless flow, allowing action to occur naturally and fluidly. I suppose the Infinity Engine was the closest one could get to such fluid action while still retaining at least the outline of the basic AD&D rules. Essentially, I’m torn between the desire to immerse the player in a combat situation and the desire to make sure even slow-twitchers get something out of a game.

As far as dialogue, scripting, and depth, I thought it was great. We had intimate control over stats, motions, scripting, alignment variables, and basically any variables or constraints we wanted to introduce.

RPGWatch: Generally speaking, what are the biggest constraints in bringing the AD&D universe to the computer?

Chris Avellone: Turn-based systems do not translate well into real-time games. In addition, the spell system in AD&D was not computer player friendly. I imagine much of the impetus behind the Warlock and Sorcerer classes in D&D nowadays is a result of the frustrations of spell memorization and spell books.

That said, however, the Planescape source material itself was designed to bend (and break) various D&D rules. As a result, getting changes to the character development (especially the Nameless One’s leveling scheme), having unconventional character classes, and brand new spells (thanks to Ken Lee, Eric Campanella, and Rob Holloway), actually complemented the setting, not undermined it.

Colin McComb: Having regard for the different play styles of each gaming type. You’ve got rules lawyers, who want to make sure that they receive every possible benefit from the rules. You’ve got min-maxers, who calculate pros and cons with the eagle eye of a CPA. You’ve got roleplayers, who couldn’t care less about the rules and just want to see the story. Then you’ve got the computer gamers, some of whom want a straight-up Diablo-style adventure game and think Zelda is role-playing (don’t get me wrong; I love Zelda, but it drives me crazy to see it called “role-playing”), and then you’ve got… well, the list goes on. You’ve got to figure out how to cater to a significant chunk of each of these groups and make the game recognizably D&D in their particular styles, and that’s a serious chunk of work.

Oh, actually, I just remembered: The experience point system works fine for tabletop gaming, but it is completely broken for computer-style gaming. Players expect a certain amount of incremental reward as they progress through a game; it keeps us motivated to press on. Unfortunately, in AD&D, levels come harder as you advance, and thus the regular reward system breaks down. During the design and implementation of the Curst/Carceri sequence, Feargus took me aside and asked me to increase the XP rewards in the area significantly, because otherwise the player could go through the entire level without seeing a single level increase. The amount of encounters in the area are approximately a metric ton; there should be a reward in there somewhere. 5,000 XP for a combat is a huge reward, in theory, but it’s almost nothing when compared to the XP one needs to get to 20th level. We wanted our players to get that feeling of success that a level brings, and it just wasn’t happening with ordinary XP rewards, so we jacked up the XP gained in certain dialogues.


PS:T Development Cycle

RPGWatch: Why Planescape?

Chris Avellone: Boring answer, but here it is: Interplay had the license, and they had the resources to do one. The setting and engine was dictated to us, but of all the licenses that could be dictated to somebody at Interplay, it was one of the best (aside from possibly Fallout).

In any event, Ferg and Fargo pretty much let us run with it, I think they were more concerned with Black Isle getting Baldur's Gate and Fallout 2 done than worrying too much about Torment.

Colin McComb: Because TSR had licensed out its various properties to a bunch of different software companies. Interplay wound up with Planescape, and Interplay’s management was determined to wring every possible ounce of profit from the license. This leads nicely into your next question.

RPGWatch: There were multiple Planescape games in the works at Interplay. Could you tell us a little bit about the two other Planescape projects?

Chris Avellone: I'll let Colin McComb field this one, since he was working on the Playstation console Planescape game. ;) The console version was supposed to be a different storyline and game mechanic than the Infinity-engine-inspired PC version.

Colin McComb: When I came on at Interplay, Zeb Cook was working on a first-person perspective Planescape game, something less wordy than Torment (well, obviously) and with different mechanics. There was all sorts of cool stuff going on with it, and I think it could have been a fairly big hit had it ever been completed. Zeb was well into the design when I first started at Interplay, and I imagine he was intensely disappointed when the project was canceled and wrapped into Stonekeep 2. “Stonekeep 2? I don’t ever remember seeing Stonekeep 2 on the shelves!” you might be saying. Well, yes. It was canceled after five years in production. I credit it with keeping the eye of the executive suite from Torment. There was a ton of money poured into that game.

Then there was the game I was working on. They asked me to play King’s Field – a first-person Playstation adventure/combat game – and I was thrilled to play computer games for a living. Then they asked me to make a game similar to but not copying King’s Field. My original concept was to start in Sigil, because it’s the quickest way to get into the Planescape feel and it’s the safest place for a low-level adventurer. The lead character was a young Harmonium recruit commanded to help his squadmates put down a riot in the Lower Ward. This first area would have been the get-acquainted-with-the-controls area, and after some low-intensity combat, the player would have been funneled into some burned-out buildings, where he’d find clues to the rioters’ motives, and this would lead him into a story of intrigue, upper-planar meddling, and a story that may have involved (at least) the scion of a power. You know, basically a police procedural with spiky armor and the actual incarnations of corruption and evil. I hadn’t gotten incredibly far into it before they pulled the plug on my game and Zeb’s, but I still think it would have been lots of fun.

RPGWatch: What was it like working with the PS:T team? How did the team come up with all the insane characters?

Chris Avellone: I made up and wrote most of the major characters such as the companions, plus Deionarra, Ravel, Pharod, Dhall (and quite a few of the minor ones, especially in the Hive), but the entire team contributed to the roster. Dave Maldonado did an excellent job on bringing the Clerk's Ward to life as well as elements of the Sensorium, Colin did the same with the Foundry, and so on. I had done a first draft of most of the dialogues for Planescape before full production started, and some designers would use those, others would revise or change as they saw fit.

Colin McComb: Avellone had at least a broad outline of the entire game from start to finish, with all of the major characters sketched out, by the time I’d joined the team. The rest of the design team added minor characters, stuff not exactly crucial to the main quest, and other fun stuff, and fleshed out the stuff he couldn’t get to. Avellone is a madman, I’ll tell you that – it was only with the greatest regret that he passed off Fhjull and Trias to me, and I heard him weeping bitter and solitary tears in his office when he assigned the Brothel to Dave Maldonado.

Working with the Torment team was incredible. It was really a fantastic bunch of people. We all did the very most we could to help each other out, to make each area as good as it could be, and to incorporate as many ideas as we could. Eric Campanella, one of our artists, came up with a pile of crazy and creepy monsters, and we made up some names and stats for them and threw them into the sewers.

RPGWatch: How was work divided and who did what (areas/NPCs/dialogue)?

Chris Avellone: I wrote a first draft and character briefs of most of the characters in the game (I’d say 75%, a sample of one of these dialogue briefs is attached - Ravel_First_Draft.doc), and then designers for individual areas would script and revise them, taking them to something along the lines of Ravel_Final.doc. Probably a poor example, since I wrote Ravel from start to the finished template, but it should give you a sense of scope, and taking it from first draft to final copy was no small task.

I probably did the most writing, but Colin, Warner, Maldonado, Bokkes, Jason Suinn, Deiley, and others all made original characters as well as revising the suggested ones. Suinn, for example, did a lot of the core work for the Alley of Dangerous Angles and a number of original characters (and item descriptions), and Warner and Colin hammered away at Curst. In general, each designer took a portion of the game and fleshed it out.

Note that while we wrote these dialogues in Word, we had a clunky process for getting them into the editor and testing them – we had several tech designers (Presnell, Hendee, Derek Johnson, and Dave Maldonado) who actually helped get the frameworks into the game and inputed them directly into the editor. Maldonado had the horrid task of getting Fell’s dialogue into the game, which was a huge pain because it technically was three dialogues in one (and huge ones) depending on who was translating for the player.

Since then, we've tried to use batch files and importation processes for entering dialogues into game editors, and when possible, we try to write dialogues directly in the editor (NWN2: Mask of the Betrayer).

Colin McComb: I hate to say it again, but Chris did the major work on the game. I would estimate that although he had seven designers on his team, he did about 50% of the work on the project. Keep in mind that he did all this while he was working on Fallout 2 as well. The man is truly prolific.

For the major character dialogues, I based my work on the original dialogues that Chris had created – some of them were just snippets, but they all held the germs of fascinating ideas - because I felt that the game would be better served to move forward with his vision as the signpost. If I misremember anything I’m about to list, I plead the passage of years and the indulgence of my coworkers.

The areas I did included Smoldering Corpse bar and its attendant quests and dialogues, Many-As-One and the Warrens of Thought, the Great Foundry, some of the Lower Ward (John Deiley did most of the other parts), Lothar and the Bones of the Night (though I don’t remember if I did Mantuok), Many-As-One, Curst, Under Curst (and certain dialogue nodes with Vhailor), Carceri. Trias the Betrayer, and Fhjull Forked-Tongue. I helped smooth out certain kinks in the flow of the game, and suggested some of the chaos that might ensue when Curst shifted into Carceri and helped design the mechanic that would allow the player to return the city to the Outlands. I think I did some other stuff too.

I should mention that Curst-in-Carceri would not have been nearly as fun without the aid of Scott Warner and Adam Heine, both of whom helped turn a fairly stale location into the awesome run of chaos and super-scripted events that it became. Scott’s a lead at Pandemic Studios now, and based on his performance on Torment, he definitely deserves to be.

I would also add that Dave Maldonado deserves a huge portion of credit for the Clerk’s Ward. He did a fantastic job and was fearless in exploring the possibilities.
Scott Warner, Jason Suinn, and John Deiley did a hell of a job on creature design, item design and placement, stores, and all the thankless stuff that people don’t tend to notice when it’s done well, but definitely notice if it’s not. So I hereby would like to make sure they are thanked, and that very loudly, in public.

Chris was almost entirely responsible for the dialogues between the Nameless One and the party NPCs. We could add a few nodes of dialogue here and there, but Chris did almost everything with those characters.


Part Two will continue the conversation, discussing the story, setting, other Planescape games and more.

Box Art

Information about

Planescape: Torment

Developer: Black Isle

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: RPG
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced

Regions & platforms
North America
· Platform: PC
· Released: 1999-12-10
· Publisher: Interplay

More information

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