The Man Who Travels The Planes ‒ an interview with Chris Avellone

Zerthimon once said “One who does not play role playing games, does not *know* himself” [Ninth Circle] ‒ we can’t argue with that. And Chris Avellone knows RPGs quite well.

We had an opportunity to interview Chris on game design related topics, Planescape: Torment, his experience with Numenera and his upcoming activities.

Polish translation: Podróżnik Sfer ‒ wywiad z Chrisem Avellone’em

Grimuar: Hi, Chris. We’re glad that you found a moment to answer our questions. Last year you once again became a human stretch goal; you also got involved in another demanding cRPG project. What has been taking up most of your time recently?

Chris Avellone: I got drafted for creative design on the next slate of Obsidian projects, and there’s a lot. We’re pitching several new games at Obsidian now that titles are wrapping up, and I was enlisted into that process. We have about at least nine proposals in the works, some with multiple stories and story arcs, which is challenging, but in a good way, it’s just a lot to juggle. It’s largely Feargus (our CEO) and I doing the initial proposals, and then senior folks get moved on to them as their time frees up. It gives me new respect for what Feargus has to juggle with projects and contracts. Things should settle down once we have the next slate of projects good to go.

In my off-duty time, I’m playing the Wasteland 2 beta and writing the Wasteland novel, doing nation design for the Accursed RPG, both of which are nice changes of pace from my game writing. Working on the FTL Enhanced Edition (which I did for free because I love FTL) was also a fun experience – Tom Jubert and Justin Ma and the devs were really fun and open to work with. I also liked a lot of the new plans they had for the game and the expansion of the lore.

I’m also slated to add narrative muscle to the Legend of Grimrock series by Wayside Creations (they did Fallout: Nuka Break and Red Star), and I’m looking forward to that since I’m a Legend of Grimrock fan.

Systematic work with diverse settings – such as the fantasy world of Pillars of Eternity, the futuristic Numenera or return to the post-nuclear Wasteland – demands a lot of creativity. Could you list any works – literary or other – which have inspired you or influenced the shaping of your imagination in a special way?

When I read or watch, I tend to put things in a game design perspective, so what others might largely regard as a crappy movie, I’m always asking myself how it would translate into a game environment. So for example: 30 Days of Night, Battle Royale, Cube, Lifeboat, Crank, the Darkest Day, etc. end up being inspiring because I can break them down by system and level design mechanics. I also read a lot of comics and graphic novels, and some stand-outs are: Walking Dead (and the new Manifest Destiny by Skybound), Wild Blue Yonder, Zero, Secret, Protocol Orphans, Day Men, Black Science (fantastic), and Sex Criminals. More on Sex Criminals a few lines down.

Lastly, I keep going back to Batman. Not only do I like the current Snyder run immensely, but Batman is the ultimate example of a designer’s primary job: execution. Batman, at its core, is a stupid idea. Rich kid dresses up like a bat and fights crime and his arch-enemy is a clown. But, in the right hands, it can become so much more with context, presentation, character design, and psychology. (Side note: Sex Criminals is the latest example of this – when I heard the premise, I thought it was the dumbest one-sentence I’d ever read – the execution, however, is fantastic and now I encourage everyone to give it a read.)

Could you share with us a few elements of your creative process? Do you have any secret rituals that let you reach maximum creativity?

There’s a few. One, write creatively first thing in the morning before you do anything else, like check work email or anything involving the internet or have breakfast or workout, and then write until you hit a wall (usually takes an hour or two for me), then go do any of the things above. I usually go workout and think about the morning writing and where I could go from there, and the endorphins usually help with the next steps.

Also, I don’t always write linearly. I write moments, scenes, and descriptions that I really want to write that I think would be cool for the player and/or the reader, then I work backwards from there to see how I can build those moments in reverse.

I reward myself for pushing to reach certain goals. I require I write at least one hour per day outside of my core hours at Obsidian. If I do three hours, then I treat myself (food, beer), and since I always want to treat myself, that’s a good incentive.

Lastly, I try to look for other ways to tell the story. Visual (esp. Prop placement and graffiti placement) and sounds (sound effects) are often better ways to communicate what’s going on with an area rather than a five minute expository conversation with the town greeter. I sometimes even do this with descriptions in writing. I was getting hung up on one chapter I was writing because I was having a character attempt to explain in words what happened, then I tried another track where he had to do it with chalk drawings only, and that was much easier to lay out and write and communicated the info in half the space.

In *knowing* yourself, there would be little in the Planes left worth *knowing* ‒ Githzerai Dak’kon [FanArt by Shameless Shamsiel]

Games are not literature – you’re bound to work within the limitations of mechanics. Which important elements of modern technology tend to be the most limiting for writers? What kind of devices do you lack the most?

The limitations I see the most are just financial and resource hurdles. Often, game companies can’t afford to hire editors (it’s almost impossible to justify that expense) and editing and proofing are such an important part of the process it shouldn’t be left to chance. I will add, that from a tech standpoint, the amount of games that don’t have the ability to display italicized text is sadness. Italics communicate so much in tone.

You’re working on several titles based on unconventional settings. Which elements of these games do you find especially interesting? What are their strongest points?

Wasteland 2 is a nice nostalgic trip back to the 80s, and since I grew up in the eighties, that gives a lot of fuel to the creative process (music, fashion, movies, media, commercials, all twisted out of control). Also, when it comes to franchises, Wasteland is even more freeing than other post-apocalyptic licenses because there’s less bookends to worry about (and it helps that inXile and Fargo are very open to kicking around lore ideas – they are very much about sharing the world with the designers).

With Numenera, the strong points are twofold – one, the setting that Monte Cook established was already extremely varied, and when you add the Torment pillars to it (theme, story emphasis, companion emphasis), all of those come together nicely. When working on Numenera, I feel very much Iike I’m doing a game version of a Gene Wolfe Book of the New Sun novel, which is pretty cool. Or Roadside Picnic, except fantasy-based.

How did you enjoy playing Numenera? Could you tell us more about the epic accomplishments of your character?

I loved playing Numenera for a few reasons. One, the ruleset allows for you to feel like a hero. Second, it encourages establishing connections and stories between characters, and the ability to exchange XP to help each other to succeed adds another level of communal sharing and bonding to the process. In every Numenera game I’ve played, I’ve felt a higher level of cooperation and teamwork than any other PNP game I’ve played. That’s not to discount other games I’ve played, they just don’t always have the same level of assistance mechanics and “character ties” mechanics that Numenera has. They encourage you to build not just your character concepts with a degree of freedom, but then they encourage you to develop background and future quest seeds between your characters. When on the adventure itself, the XP sharing also causes a lot of bonding, and I like the encouragement to “burn” magic items you find instead of hoarding them (in Numenera, if you hoard too many cyphers – equivalent of potions and scrolls – they create damaging effects, so you’re encouraged to burn through them as you find them).

Could you tell us a little bit more about the character you’re going to create for Torment: Tides of Numenera?

Not at this time, unfortunately. I’m happy to share thoughts after people have a chance for him to be in the party in the computer game. He was designed specifically to fit into the themes we’d established from Torment, and Colin, Kevin, and Adam seem to like the premise, so we’re good there. I think he’ll allow for a lot of good role-playing opportunities while being useful at the same time.

Torment: Tides of Numenera and Pillars of Eternity will use different combat systems. Do you think that turn-based and real-time combat can be equally absorbing? Considering these two games, what might the strength of each system consist in?

Both can be equally absorbing, although I do get more adrenaline spikes from real time. I feel like with turn-based I’m playing a gambling game, where I’m pulling the slot machine lever with every attack (Wasteland 2), and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, either. It gives me a chance to carefully plan my moves. I’m fine with either real time (as long as I can pause it) or turn-based, I’m not wedded to either one, it depends on the feel you’re shooting for. WL2 came from turn-based roots. I also found that in X-Com: Enemy Unknown (as with the original), turn-based made me even more anxious and terrified what the aliens were going to do.

There’s one thing, however, that Torment is doing to elevate turn-based which appeals to my narrative instincts. The combat is part of a broader turn-based system called Crises, which include other types of actions like repairing devices or even having a brief conversation. Getting the right feel for a sudden conversation in the midst of a pitched battle is harder to do with real time combat. The ways in which they’re looking at designing the narrative to interweave with the combat in ways like this is really promising.

Annah of The Shadows [Art by Michał „Grosnus” Sobejko]

Spoiler: Some of the characters of Planescape: Torment are really controversial, complicated and morally ambiguous personalities whose actions transform the Planes. A Gray Sister questioning the rules of the Multiverse, the defender and destroyer of Shra’kt’lor, a succubus who defied her own nature – what inspired you to create each of these characters?

I took the Planescape concepts and traditional views of the characters/races and tried to reverse them. Succubi are often pigeonholed into a certain look and attitude, so a chaste, polite, friendly, and wise one seemed more interesting. Having a githzerai in your party seemed to be a signature race in Planescape, so I took that, incorporated that, and then examined what it would be like for the same character (whose race had escaped from slavery) and made him a slave again.

Planescape allowed for a lot of those reversals, and even encouraged them in the framework of the setting.

How did you come up with the idea of the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon ‒ Dak’kon’s artifact that hid the entire history of the githzerai people? Rarely can we see items that enrich the plot with a whole new storyline.

A priest needs a bible or book of teachings. And it seemed like an interesting way to share the history of the githzerai and question it at the same time. I really enjoyed writing the stories for each teaching (although we almost couldn’t get zerth spells in in time). I did include the hint of a possible unreliable narrator so it wouldn’t be considered canon if the TSR guys didn’t like it, though, but I don’t know if they ever considered any of the lore. I hope they did.

One of the strongest points of Torment were the dialogues – remarkably complex and at the same time full of thought-provoking one-liners. Did the ideas for memorable quotes come spontaneously or are they based on particular sources?

I had about 10+ years of notes built up in my idea journal (and now I have 13+ more years on top of that), and it felt like I used a good chunk of those for Torment where appropriate. I like to keep inspiration art folders and text docs filled with possible names, spells, concepts, quests, locations, location names, and a host of other bits and pieces I think would be cool and go “swim” in it on occasion when I get writer’s block. People also don’t tend to let me borrow books because I write and draw ideas in them when I get inspired which isn’t generally welcomed.

Spoiler: In the Vision Document for Planescape: Torment you’d included concepts for two alternative endings which eventually didn’t make it to the final game: there was a “bad” ending in which The Nameless One wakes up on a mortuary slab again and continues his sad cycle of life and death, and a “good” ending depicting the final triumph of The Nameless One over The Transcendent One. After all these years, do you think the player should have been given these alternative choices? Or did the game benefit from this turn of events?

I don’t think players minded. I would have liked to get them in, along with more planes, more dungeons, etc. but there was only so much time.

We have always wondered what would have happened if the concept of talking heads (as seen in Fallout) had been implemented in Planescape: Torment. You know, Deionarra addressing the player directly with words like: “Perhaps in death, I still hold some shred of use for you…?” – that would have been a traumatic experience. Not to mention Morte. What happened to this characteristic idea? Have you ever contemplated returning to this concept?

The talking heads in Fallout were resource intensive, and the player’s ability to imagine those characters saying the lines is powerful without needing to see the faces. Also, modifying expressions in the same manner as Fallout heads wasn’t always easy, and I don’t know if some of the best uses for character expression were always used – when you can see someone’s face, sometimes their expression without them saying anything at all is more powerful, and there were few instances of that in Fallout, if any.

Lately you’ve been answering numerous questions about crowdfunding campaigns and their impact on the video game industry. However, Kickstarter is not just social financing – it is also an explosion of positive energy and crazy ideas. Which moments of all campaigns particularly stuck in your mind?

Off the top of my head – Torment: Tides of Numenera making its funding goal in 6 hours, Double Fine’s success in 24 hours that redefined how games could be financed and made (Tim Schafer and Double Fine changed things for everyone), being asked by Brian Fargo to not just support Wasteland with a quote but to have the childhood dream of being able to work on the sequel, the first realization of how Kickstarter could cut development time simply by discovering players didn’t want a feature (happened on WL2 and hours of programming time were set free!), and seeing KS’s not only continue, but thrive in terms of funding as time progresses. I’m really looking forward to seeing what KS holds for the future as people become more and more comfortable with it as a funding model.

Game design involves certain sacrifices. The final form of the writers’ vision is highly influenced by the framework of time and budget. Which of the interesting concepts and elements of the games that you worked on were never included in the shipped versions?

Two additional romance arcs in Alpha Protocol (that I’m grateful got the axe, there was already too much romance in that game). I fought hard to get one of them removed, and in the end, it was still partially there when I’d have preferred it be cut out entirely. Let’s see… with Planescape, we had hoped to get another plane in, but it was pretty early on when we discovered we had more than we bargained for already. I will say I am proud of what we were able to get into our games: more companions for Mask of the Betrayer (Kaelyn almost didn’t make it) and companion dialogue with Torment (almost all of those could have been lost, including Dak’kon’s spells and the Circle of Zerthimon).

We’ve heard you were a fan of Firefly. Let’s assume that you’re given an offer to create a role-playing game set in Joss Whedon’s universe. What do you do?

Use it as an excuse to meet directly with Joss and chat about games and comics.

More seriously (well, equally seriously), I’d take a closer game design look at Firefly, see how we could leverage and expand upon companion mechanics (which is core to Firefly and Serenity) and then start brainstorming cool narrative arcs, quests, heists, and exploring more about the psychic experimentations they had present in the game universe – as well as other experiments the Alliance may have performed on people and planets. I’m too pragmatic to assume we could get the actual cast, but if we could, I’d want to do something that continued on after Serenity and kept the story going (although I believe the Firefly comic series is already doing it with “Leaves on the Wind” (Zack Whedon).

After many years the “Brian Fargo presents” intro returns to computer screens. How did you enjoy playing the beta version of Wasteland 2?

I played one path for about 30 hours and enjoyed it. inXile was quick about addressing feedback on the beta (and describing the fixes comically, some of the patch notes made me laugh out loud). I’m going to play through it again taking an alternate path because I know the opening areas change dramatically depending on the choices you make (we wanted to showcase reactivity as early as possible, and I think it was successful).

Two big premieres await Obsidian Entertainment ‒ Pillars of Eternity and South Park: The Stick of Truth. We’d like to wish you best of luck in finishing both productions and a lot of inspiration in creating your future projects. Please accept our best wishes ‒ straight from the heart of the Plane of Positive Energy!

Thanks, we appreciate the kind words! There’s a lot of good Kickstarter projects on the way in all fronts as well, so all in all, should be a great year.

One last question ‒ regarding an age-old mystery.

The poet we encounter in the Clerk’s Ward (Planescape: Torment) keeps muttering something in an unknown language. Can you recall the meaning of these words? Could it be an encoded message? Or is it just gibberish?

I’uer nei aon Dadic Artag, alad aviw ovulf moi’oc
Ui jakillu nediu wyr aon jigar o’ur m’hesh
Cualow tieng val aon unamihir t’sugent wo,
Nodwe aon zemon ui aon sonye me asaho ge dio?
Aon t’hesei oma iyos ha aon eyash.
Nost ayen i fasir hem wyl obris aon meha;
Ui awon riwon so aon wirano gras Em nozaeh
Rareh roib i ehsin so sanatoum serolk…

So I asked Dave Maldonado, who was responsible for making the Clerk’s Ward as great at it was and is head of global events in World of Warcraft (my apologies if I have that wrong, Dave), and he had this to say:

It was something, I’m just about certain; I’ll always take an opportunity to include some weird reference and/or Easter egg rather than simply make up nonsense. I’m pretty sure what I did was take a famous poem or song, and then just rewrite it in a made-up language, using the same number of letters (like AON is probably AND, etc.) and structure/punctuation. So if someone could ever find something that matched it for word/letter count and structure, they’d have it.

So the challenge is issued. I’m sure the Torment guys would be willing to give a free key to anyone who found it.

We encourage you to follow Chris Avellone on Twitter.

Click here to read this interview in Polish:

Podróżnik Sfer ‒ wywiad z Chrisem Avellone’em