In the City of Doors

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Today I’ll be doing a review of sorts, but more of a reminiscence. I have resisted the idea of reviewing PC games on the blog, but why the hell not!? They’ve made an impact on my writing, and lots of other things too. Especially my subject for today, the classic Planescape: Torment. Torment was one of those awesome Black Isle Studios games, heavy on narrative and using the Infinity Engine. I feel like this is a good time to be talking about this game again. There has been a sort of renaissance in this style, with Kickstarter success stories like Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity lighting the way. There’s also a spiritual sequel in the works called Torment: Tides of Numenera.

A lot has been written about this game already, and clearly it’s getting a lot of buzz again. So I want to focus mainly on what it meant to me personally, as well as my experiences playing D&D within it’s wider fictional universe.

Playing Torment feels different, it’s an experience like absolutely nothing else I’ve tried, in any medium (except maybe Fallen London). The lead designers had a lot of goals in mind when they pitched the idea to their publisher, but I could sum them up as “let’s undermine every single convention of the genre.” And that’s what they did, and it was awesome. The main character in the game is an immortal, horribly scarred amnesiac whose best friend is a talking skull. You solve puzzles by dying repeatedly, instead of magic items you can equip tattoos and detachable body parts, and instead of treasure, you try to recover memories and lost knowledge.

The setting is actually an old 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting, Planescape. It’s not exactly a “world” per se, but an entire multiverse. Think something like Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I can sort of imagine what the game would look like if it didn’t take place in that setting, but I think it was a really strong choice to use it. A lot of the undermined fantasy conventions that the writers were looking for were already present in Planescape, ready to use. In Planescape, your beliefs and personal philosophy are stronger than your sword, and a whispered phrase or useless trinket can open doorways to other worlds.

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I think the writers and designers of the game started with a simple idea (do everything differently), and whether intentionally or not, created a universe that was incredibly inspiring for them to work in. Because it’s not just how strange and different the game is, the writing has so much depth. Every description of your surroundings is dripping with mood. Every NPC is given a unique voice and their own set of quirks. I’m a strong believer in using text to describe the world you’re playing, and Torment uses that to full effect. There’s certainly a place for the more cinematic styles (check out any triple-A game from the last 10 years), but it gladdens my heart that this is a kind of storytelling that the old top-down style does especially well.

And I should talk about the supporting characters, your party of adventurers (warning, this where the feels come in). I have never been so attached, and so invested, in a cast of characters like I have with these. Not only are they written incredibly well, but your relationship with each of them is very complicated. I think that’s what does it for me, it’s not just that they are deep and interesting, but I actually feel conflicting emotions when I interact with them. The reason for that has to do with the main characters nature as an immortal.

Every time the protagonist died in the past, he came back with a different personality. Sometimes those personalities were really, really bad people. So that means you have a dark past, you made some bad decisions and you hurt and abused a lot of people. Some of those people you hurt can join your party, and you need to deal with that baggage. Pretty much all of them, if they haven’t been scarred by you personally, have been scarred in some other way. One of my favorites characters is a “love-interest,” Fall-From-Grace.”

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I mainly like Grace because she’s intelligent, open-minded, and a joy to converse with (and she’s kind of the only one who’s nice to you). I also feel for her because of how she clearly suffers, but won’t or can’t share those feelings with you. She is an actual succubus, but she has taken a vow of chastity in an attempt to better herself. Her past is even more horrifying than your own. She was a slave to devils, sold by her own mother, and so on. She stays with you initially because you represent a new experience for her, but over time she comes to have feelings for you. Being with you is painful for her in many ways, not least of all because no matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to change who you are (or who you were). The big tag line in the game is “What can change the nature of a man?” I like to think that Grace wants an answer to that too, since she struggles to change herself as well.

So what game nowadays has you roleplay the traumatic aftermath of abusive relationships? None that I can think of. And I don’t want to scare anyone off from the game due to all that mature subject matter. These stories always have at least the option for a happy resolution, even your own. Every question gets answered, but some of them you’ll have to come up with on your own.

I also want to give a resounding recommendation for use of the setting in role-playing games. My first experience with D&D was playing a lengthy campaign (which we actually finished!) using Planescape. I have very fond memories of this game. It’s great because it’s fantasy fiction at it’s best, not bogged down with rules or the minutia of world-building. I was inspired (along with my excellent co-DM) to create some very memorable scenarios.

My favorite, which I’ll have to revisit someday, was the party’s visit to Coyote’s Refuge. The basic premise was a secret place beyond the real world, that was created as a collaboration between three different Trickster Gods: Coyote, Anansi, and Eris. The Refuge was meant to be a place for the tricksters of the multiverse to lay low, after pissing off some god or powerful figure. It looked like a giant flesh-colored orange, floating in a sea of pure chaos called Limbo. The Refuge was sort of intelligent, and if anyone committed an act of violence within it’s walls, it would spit them out into Limbo. So our players realized that they could accomplish things by acting obnoxious and pissing off NPC’s, who would then be spat out when they acted up.

It was good fun, and I hope Planescape is kept alive in the years to come, it’s just too unique to let it fade into obscurity. The new edition of D&D has made some shout-outs to Planescape in their core books, so who knows, maybe it’ll make a comeback?

Images taken from the Torment Wiki

A Singular Sort of Fiction

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Today I shall share my thoughts on epic lapine narratives, and of course more stuff on games.

Rabbits. Honestly, I don’t know if we would ascribe so much importance to these little fellows if it weren’t for the works of Richard Adams. I mean sure they have a place in our folklore and mythological cycles going back to ancient times. But before his wonderful magnum opus, I don’t think it occurred to anyone to look at a rabbit’s life story the same way we look at the Aeneid. Watership Down has always been one of my favorites, and I’m currently re-reading it for the nth time. I love the book, I love the movie, and I love the bizarre role-playing game which it inspired (more on that later).

There has been plenty of interesting criticism on the book, but it’s still hard (for me at least) to answer the underlying question of why it’s still so appealing. It’s not just that Adams expertly captures the feel of the old epics, and creates a fascinating culture and world while he’s at it. I think it has something to do with how stacked the odds always seem to be for the characters. Everyone loves underdogs, because the possibility (and even likelihood) of failure or death really raises the stakes.

Rabbits are the ultimate underdogs, they live in an incredibly hostile world, and they only have each other to depend on. There is always something out there that is smarter, faster, and stronger than them. The only edge they have on the rest of the animal kingdom is being really good at making babies, and that’s a long-term survival strategy. So whenever I see a character in Watership Down display bravery, or defy the odds, it seems so much more meaningful because you know how f#@%ed they are if things go badly for them.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes from the movie to give you a sense of what I’m talking about. I couldn’t find a high-quality clip, but if you follow the link and start at 1:06:00 and go to 1:08:00, there you are –

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FakucIq58XU

Bigwig (and the rest of them too) have nothing going for them at this point. They are surrounded, they don’t know Kehaar is on the bridge. It’s pretty hopeless, and Bigwig goes ahead and trash-talks the General anyway, just because he’s a badass. It’s foolish bravery, but bravery nonetheless. Later those two characters square off again in my other favorite scene, which I will use the book to excerpt (Bigwig, from the point of view of the Efrafrans, is referred to as Thlayli) –

Once more he climbed on the earth pile. Then he stopped. Vervain and Thistle, raising their heads to peer past him from behind, saw why. Thlayli had made his way up the run and was crouching immediately below. Blood has matted the great thatch of fur on his head, and one ear, half-severed, hung down beside his face. His breathing was slow and heavy.

“You’ll find it much harder to push me back from here, General,” he said.

With a sort of weary, dull surprise, Woundwort realized that he was afraid. He did not want to attack Thlayli again. He knew, with flinching certainty, that he was not up to it. And who was? he thought. Who could do it? No, they would have to get in by some other way, and everyone would know why.

“Thlayli,” he said, “we’ve unblocked a run out here. I can bring in enough rabbits to pull down this wall in four places. Why don’t you come out?”

Thlayli’s reply, when it came, was low and gasping, but perfectly clear.

“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.”

Again, even in a situation where it’s rabbits against rabbits, Adams puts the protagonists in a seemingly hopeless situation, and if the survival of the whole community wasn’t at stake, who knows where it would have gone. It’s not the kind of world where the heroes are invulnerable either. Bigwig almost dies in a snare, and the group loses a few rabbits during their journey.

I’ve found that when it comes to stories like this, the audience immediately becomes aware of how serious the circumstances are, regardless of how silly or strange the premise. There’s almost a comparison with zombie fiction. You’re on the edge of your seat because you know this is a world that does not care. And if you’ve seen the movie, you know that there are some horrific moments that wouldn’t be out of place in the horror genre. I’ll never forget my 8th birthday party, where my friends slept over and watched Watership Down for the first time. Two of them had their moms come pick them up after I fell asleep.

Anyway, that feeling of tension and desperation carries over into some of the book’s other adaptations, namely the role-playing game. Bunnies and Burrows is one of my favorite tabletop games of all time, even though it’s now incredibly dated. Here are some interesting facts about it-

  • It’s one of the oldest tabletop RPGs, the first edition coming out only two years after the original D&D.
  • It introduced many innovative concepts, including a rudimentary skill system and martial arts.
  • Multiple “magic” systems, in the form of herbalism (combining ingredients to create a range of effects), seer abilities (spending “trance-points” to achieve supernatural effects), and empathic healing (burning fatigue and hit points to heal your friends).
  • It forced the players into making non-traditional choices for overcoming obstacles, with combat usually being a really bad idea.

I ran a short B&B campaign with some roommates/college friends, and it was a blast. Since Richard Adams clearly was inspired by ancient epics, I basically adapted the Odyssey into an adventure series with rabbits. The group played a band separated from their warren by a flood, and they had to find their way home. We had some surprisingly emotional moments, with plenty of tension, excitement, and moments for Bigwig-style heroism.

We tried to use the original, 1976 rules, but I ended up kind of re-designing it as I went. Still, they’re actually pretty simple and fun, if you ignore a lot of the ridiculous and useless sub-systems (like herbalism, which has some great ideas, and some terrible ones). There’s also a GURPS edition which is supposed to be good. Currently, Bully-Pulpit Games, the masterminds behind many classic  story-games, such as Fiasco, Durance, and Night-Witches, is working on their own rabbits RPG. It will be called The Warren, and it adapts the rules of Apocalypse World. I’m a little bitter about it, since I also had that idea a while back, but I guess it goes to show that you should act on good ideas when you have them. I have to admit they came up with a better title too, mine would have been called Bunny World.

Image courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images photostream, no known copyright restrictions