Monday, January 16, 2012

Planescape oh the Torment

Whipping up a batch of fresh New Year's resolutions early this month, I treated myself to breaking last year's most successful one: thou shalt not play computer games. For an entire year—with the notable lapse with obsessing about uniting the wild Orlanthi clans of Dragon Pass over my Iphone screen—it was a resolution that I not only accomplished, but thrived under.

Computer games—especially the ultra-layered and complex strategy games like Europa Universalis and its love-children—and I have a long history of love/hate. Predictably, I will load one up, getting increasingly drawn in, having great fun at first and then minutely and gradually it turns to something isolating and chore-like.

Stopping cold turkey, a relatively easy thing to do given the tendency of cprgs to become lifeless, cut-scene-dominated railroads these days, freed up more time for an activity that energizes me: face-to-face gaming (and it's close-enough equivalent on Google Plus).

What kind of gaming crack could send my packing back to a computer screen?


Planescape Torment, a game I avoided for years despite my longstanding love for the Baldur's Gates and Icewind Dales—my only real connection to D&D for decades. Never a big fan of the hokey AD&D extra-planar hooha, the setting sounded as appealing as that famous trainwreck Dragonlance to my ears.

I was wrong. Not only is it a great, mostly non-linear game with relatively deep rich layers, but I found it actually inspiring my campaign neurons rather than just glazing them over. A number of ideas intrigued me about the game enough that I want to find a home for them back in my face-to-face gaming:

Scrodinger's Character. In Torment your PC's attributes emerges during actual play than in pre-game chargen--a game concept that Zzarchov employs in Neo-Geek Revival. While not being a big fan of D&D's alignment, I did dig the idea of starting as Neutral through your own choices developing into another. It gives alignment a dynamism, more like a vector, that seems more satisfying and resonant with human character then just picking one at the beginning and staying within its confines unless you make a major transgression.

Likewise the idea of picking class during play, you start as a fighter and can move into other classes as you interact with NPCs and make choices, appealed to me. Granted both ideas I explored somewhat with my zero-level rules, but possibly something to be toyed with in later level play.

Extra-planar Hub City. With the growing energy around open world play with FLAILSNAILS and Google+ gaming, this idea has more appeal to me. I still am not a big fan of the AD&D idea of a multiverse but a cherry-picking of some of the more interesting planes coupled with gates into other campaign worlds on the prime sound like something I'd like to develop.

Spells and Gear with Flavor. This was a big one for me as it's one of the areas I feel like I have to stretch my creativity more. I want a world were magic is steeped more in the specific feel of the setting, where spell names and effects frame around a character's doctrine. Where even a re-skinned Magic Missile, Reign of Anger, drips flavor.

I also want more items like charms made from hardened blood clots and parasitic flies that melt on your tongue and weapons that hold strange backstories and an array of unusual powers and curses.

(If folks are interested I have compiled and edited two documents totaling over a 100 pages all the descriptions and AD&D tabletop mechanics of the magic items, weird gear and unique spells. Bestiary coming next. Drop me an email if you are interested.)

Curious to hear if others have been inspired by the game or another of its cousins. If you have ported back a piece or large section for your own tabletop game.

Now back to Baator.

30 comments:

  1. Love Planescape. Torment is still well regarded as one of the most immersive of the D&D spin off games... so over the top it actually made sense...

    Great setting, although I still think the whole 'faction' thing hobbled it.

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    1. The faction thing would have had great appeal for me if the factions weren't so achingly badly done (not all, but a critical mass). For some reason it feels particularly dated to 1990s pop culture to me.

      I dig the idea of political intrigue around doctrine, but it has to spring organically from the logic of a setting.

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    2. For my benefit, what's your main specific criticism of the factions as written?

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    3. @ck: I think you nailed it, there. They just came across as contrived.

      @John: I'm not a 'joiner'. None of my players were 'joiners'. D&D was not a 'joiner' game. Planescape forced every character to be a 'joiner'. That setting would've been much better received without the railroading of factions. I think Chris is correct about their details - they came across as sorry reflections of activist groups.

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    4. The '90s pop culture bit may also be due to the fact that Planescape's factions were designed to give PCs Vampire: the Masquerade-style affiliations.

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    5. Sometimes I feel like the Rip Van Winkle of our circles having missed most every rpg trend from 1989-2008. That seems spot on from what I know.

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    6. There is one important contributor to the hobby during that period that you shouldn't skip on: John Tynes.

      Taking the formula laid down by Larry DiTillio in Masks of Nyarlathotep, Tynes revolutionized Call of Cthulhu along with his friends in Pagan Publishing. If you want to see the height of scenario design, there is no greater well to drink from. His late-era work, such as 'Dream Factory' in Mortal Coils, present open-ended mysteries of incredible complexity, and antagonists that respond in meaningful ways to player action, creating a dynamic, living world for the PCs to interact in.

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  2. I love Torment, and the Planescape setting as well, although the game and the tabletop setting are necessarily somewhat different.

    I've actually been haphazardly working on an overly ambitious Planescape sandbox for a while now. Still just a huge mess of notes at the moment, but it's very slowly taking shape.

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    1. I was wondering if people were still gaming the setting. Drop a line when you get it up and running.

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  3. I'm just commenting because I switched to Firefox and now I can actually see this post!

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    1. Oh, and I started to play PS:T on the computer five or six years ago, but I never finished the game. I agree it was pretty cool, though.

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    2. If you ever get a chance - it's worth finishing (I remember some really frustrating parts to it along the way). It was programmed with multiple endings, but they were all pretty serious but well done.

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    3. I think I am in the Last Act of the game. I have to admit it's been less interesting to me as you leave Sigil behind for the Outlands, probably reflects my own preference for a wide-open city sandbox--boy was that the bomb in Baldur's Gate when you finally get to access the city--than the planar stuff.

      Come to think of it, one thing that annoys me about the game is the inexplicably gamey reasons for not being to freely travel between locales--plot-locale chokepoints that Bioware seems to love. I assume the reason is to have it unfold in acts, but I no likey it.

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  4. I'm similarly chipping away at Planescape: Torment as I have the time.

    Excellent.

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    1. Also, stuff from Torment has started to crop up in my D&D game, and Sigil gets mentioned both as a place to visit and as a vector to reach other games.

      FLAILSNAILS, ahoy!

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  5. I just started playing this last year and I've been loving it for many of the same reasons you've described -- I love that healing potions have been replaced with weird blood clots, and so on. I've got to a point where it's easy to stop and haven't gone any further as other things have taken up my time, but I'm keen to get back to it.

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  6. Planescape: Torment is one of my favorite games. I played it years back, and then about a year ago played it again twice in a row. I tried pretty much every path - nice guy, evil guy, neutral guy. Kill everything, kill nothing. It's a really entertaining game, and the story was interesting . . . not just a frustrating series of quests on top of a bunch of fights. Plus it's the very rare game where the evil path doesn't instantly consign you to bad prices from merchants and scorn from folks who should fear you, so it's more than just lipservice to the option of being bad.

    Plus, it has Morte. ;)

    I may have to dig it out and play it again sometime, but having read some playthroughs, I think I already hit everything in it at one point or another . . .

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    1. I have been playing my usual Neutral picaresque scumbag but somewhere down the road I guess I did something "goodish" as inexplicably he's Neutral Good. Curses.

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    2. I think being Neutral was the hardest path - I did that first. You spend so much time trying not to be too good or too evil. I had more fun when I went all-out "I'm a nice guy!" and when I went "I'm a total dirtbag" than when I went neutral. :D

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  7. I wrote a post about Planescape on my blog the other day. I haven't played the video game, but may pursue it just to get some visual inspiration for the setting. I was turned off of it when it came out because I thought tieflings were cheesy, but the setting does have a lot of potential and Sigil just sounds like a fun place to adventure to me. I agree the factions are corny, but as was pointed out, Vampire was pretty big at the time and I think the factions were more a result of that than anything.

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    1. Link?

      I hear you about tieflings, not a fan either. But I can look past it for the rest of the setting.

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  8. Torment and Europa Universalis, two of only three computer games (well, EU was more of a series of games) that ever held my attention.

    I did throw a tiefling into my Greyhawk at one time and it worked just fine, Berk

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    1. Great minds think alike or was it fools rather differ, cutter?

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  9. I spent an unhealthy amount of time playing that game. There was a Vampire The Masquerade PC that was very similar that I highly recommend.

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    1. Torment is the BOMB, probably tied with Fallout 2 for me as Most Favorite Computer Game Ever. I would lose my shit (in a good way) if I ever played in a tabletop game and my character found a Heart Charm or something. Torment puts the capital-M *Magic* into every item, spell and character.

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  10. A) Do you still have that compilation and B) do you still read comments on old blog posts? Because I LOVE Planescape: Torment and I'd love to steal stuff from it for tabletop games. gmccammon5@gmail.com

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    1. Yes and yes. Let me look for the former.

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    2. I am interested in your planescape:Torment's stuff too.
      atailton.contato at gmail.com

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  11. I am interested in your planescape:Torment's stuff too.
    atailton.contato at gmail.com

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