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    Torment: Tides of Numenera, A novel roleplaying system

    When I first spoke to InXile about Torment: Tides of Numenera, both the game and its setting were at the beginning of their lives. This spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment was successfully Kickstarted in March 2013, and laid its foundations in a new, crowdfunded tabletop roleplaying game called Numenera later that year.

    Numenera is set a billion years in Earth’s future, during the Ninth World a thousand-year-old, medieval-esque civilisation built on the bones of what came before. It presents science fiction and fantasy as ends of a sliding scale, and allows individual writers and gamemasters to figure out where exactly on that scale they want to end up. Fluidity is the rule: a single, catch-all dice system is used to resolve the outcome of any difficult task, and its flexibility is such that it can be matched to any action the player can come up with. This promotes an unusual degree of improvisation when it comes to problem-solving: the players come up with ideas and the GM finds a way of making them work.
    The developers are willing to allow the player’s imagination to fill in gaps
    Tides of Numenera occupies the ‘fantasy’ end of the scale, telling a story about  the legacy of a body-swapping immortal called The Changing God. You’re the  Last Cast off, one of the God’s previous forms, attempting to determine your place in the world and fleeing the cosmic comeuppance that’s hunting your creator down. Despite sketching out its own take on the setting, however, InXile is trying  to replicate Numenera’s sense of freedom and versatility. There are limits on how the game’s improvisational fluidity can be applied to a computer RPG, where player action almost always boils down to picking items from a list. InXile accepts this restriction, but is also finding ways to give itself and players more options.  The most basic of these is the conversation system, which in Torment is expanded to include complex interactions with objects as well as people.

    “You’ll have ‘conversations’ with objects in the environment,” says InXile designer Adam Heine. “This gives you options, and gives us a lot more freedom to decide what those options are and iterate on them.”

    InXile values plurality of choice over the detail with which those actions are represented. Games are traditionally limited by their animation budgets, but Torment ’s developers are willing to allow the player’s imagination to fill in a couple of gaps. “We’ve said up front to our designers that it’s OK if we can’t depict what is being described,” says project manager Kevin Saunders. “They can just be creative.”

    Think of it as a gentle merging of the isometric RPG’s sense of place with the detail and freedom of choice afforded by a text-based adventure. That sense of freedom is particularly important in a new Torment  game, given its predecessor’s preoccupation with philosophical questions about agency and choice.

    Tides of Numenera’s driving question, ‘What does one life matter?’, is, like Planescape: Torment’s ‘What can change the nature of a man?’, concerned with the impact of your decisions. For the new game, however, InXile is experimenting with ways to present choice to the player. A dramatic example of this is the ‘crisis’ system. At set plot-related points in the game, the player will take part in complex encounters involving physical danger and, potentially, combat. Unlike the rest of the game, these crises will be turn-based and will operate against a time limit, evolving and escalating both in response to and in defiance of the player’s will.

    “The main criterion for a crisis is some kind of time pressure,” says Saunders. “This is the main part of our combat system. We’re expanding what combat means, trying to move towards the tabletop notion of an ‘encounter’, where there’s a lot more going on.”

    You might be tasked with surviving a bandit raid or rescuing survivors from a monster-besieged building, but these won’t boil down to brawls or boss fights as they might in another game. How and when  you choose to act will be based on a complex web of skills and interactable objects, emulating some of the freedom of tabletop roleplaying within the parameters of what a computer game can achieve.  Time restriction provides a sense of pressure, and emphasises the importance of your choices.

    “We’re not afraid to have content that some players won’t see,” Saunders says. “Another aspect of this is that we want failure to be more entertaining. Not getting the ‘good outcome’ doesn’t mean playing it again to get it right.” In  Tides of Numenera , you’ll be encouraged to live with your choices as you would in a tabletop game. A crisis isn’t a puzzle to be solved, but an event to live through. This is a distinction that computer games have traditionally struggled with, and it’s great  and appropriate that  Tides of Numenera  is attempting to solve one of RPG design’s fundamental weaknesses with a tabletop system designed to do exactly that.

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