Brian Fargo, Josh Sawyer, and Gordon Walton on the history and future of RPGs

Pillars of Eternity The White March Part 1

[At this point, Brian briefly assumes the role of interviewer, posing a question to Josh.]

BF: I’ll ask you: Of all the writing and pre-production and world-building you did for Pillars, how much of it made it in the game?

JS: Most of it.

BF: Most of it did, yeah?

JS: Yeah, and I think it’s because I had gone through all these world-building processes before. I tried to be really careful about not overdoing it. I’d ask in advance, ‘What sort of things do you guys want to find about this so that you have lore to draw on?’, or I’d hear a bunch of designers asking questions about a topic and I’m like, ‘I’m gonna sit down and write up an idea on this and then they can sort of percolate through it.’

There was an iteration of stuff that I screwed up on. This is all my fault, but I did constructed languages for Pillars of Eternity. So we have Glanfathan, Vailian, Aedyran, these made-up languages that are based on real-world languages, and originally Glanfathan was based on Irish, which is insane. Like, if you see written Irish and then hear it pronounced, it’s ludicrous.

You mean like Gaelic Irish?

JS: Yes. And it’s because they adopted the Latin alphabet in the 8th century when it didn’t represent a bunch of sounds that needed to be in Irish. So people were constantly trying to pronounce and mispronouncing and saying, ‘Fuck, I hate this name,’ and [Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart] finally was like, ‘Josh. The names of things.’

"When you hear the Wasteland 2 music and you hear the preacher stuff, that’s actually my grandfather." - Brian Fargo

BF: ‘Stop.’

JS: And I’m like, ‘Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, I’m gonna rename everything. I’m gonna use-,’

BF: Use good Scottish names like Urquhart.

JS: I used Cornish, which actually surprisingly was much more straightforward, and people were like, ‘Okay, I still have some problems here but this is much more straightforward.’ But there was this huge set of names and naming conventions and everything that I had to throw out and redo because I overestimated people's willingness to steep themselves in weird spellings of shit.

BF: For Bard’s Tale 4, remember the original Bard’s Tale poem, ‘The song I sing will tell the tale of a cold and wintery day,’ right? So I had [original Bard's Tale designer and programmer Michael Cranford] finish the verse to cover up the entire trilogy. Then I sent it over to Scotland and I had it translated into Gaelic. And so the woman singing in our video is the translated original poem.

JS: That’s awesome. I appreciate that. I appreciate the accuracy.

BF: We do little things like that. My grandfather, who I never met, he was a fire and brimstone preacher, hardcore, in the 50s. He would do revivals and make albums. He died of a heart attack very young. And so they recorded a record, which had that [chanting] cadence to it, very scratchy. I was like, ‘I got to do something with this,’ so I lifted the tracks out and I gave them to Mark Morgan. So when you hear the Wasteland 2 music and you hear the preacher stuff, that’s actually my grandfather. I like doing things like that, little stuff that only we get but it gives it some depth.

Wasteland 2 All Bad Things cover detail

Would you ever think about taking the story bible you develop for a game like Pillars and package it up and sell it as a hardback book? So often I feel like that stuff is, for maybe totally legitimate reasons, kept locked up in the studio.

JS: We did that. We had the guidebook. We have certain things that we outline where we say, ‘This is information yet to be revealed, this is actually part of how the story will unfold, and that’s stuff that obviously we’re not gonna put that in a book. But otherwise, what we did on Pillars is, I wrote all this crazy lore stuff over a bunch of docs and then we had Paul Kirsch, who now works for Obsidian but he was a contract writer at the time, he took all that stuff, he edited it and then he elaborated on it. And we made things like the Almanac, which is sort of just completely made-up stories and weird stuff. But people dig that. They get really into it.

And for me, I remember going back and playing first-edition Forgotten Realms. When I was a kid, at Christmas, when I got the Greyhawk box set, or the Forgotten Realms box set, I would open that and I’d look at all the heraldry, and I would read everything about each individual thing, and I loved that. And so for Pillars, even though it’s not like it’s a tabletop role-playing book, I’m like, ‘Look at the Forgotten Realms encyclopedia. Make the pages look like that. Use a typeface that looks like that, because that reminds me of that feeling of getting the D&D world sourcebooks, and that feeling of reading about the gods and reading about every country’s culture and all that shit.’ And so more than just the fact that we had said we were gonna do it, I’m like, ‘I want to do this because now I’m a guy making the thing that I loved when I was a kid.’ So I love that stuff.

BF: We’ve got a bunch of novellas for Wasteland 2. And that’s been great. In fact, I liked it so much that I’m doing a set of novellas for our next product upfront, just for idea generation. Even if I throw all of them in the trash and they never get read, if I get two nuggets of ideas out of each novella I’m okay with that. Because we did the novellas after the fact, then I thought, ‘Oh, if I had that before I would’ve done so much more,’ and so I wanted to fix that the next time around. So we’re gonna write them upfront.

We’ll wrap up. Is there anything you guys want to talk about with your new games that is kosher to talk about?

BF: I can tell you that Torment just went over 1.2 million words, so now we’re at The Bible plus 50%. We put it in early access, the response has been like a love letter, so we’re on the right track, which is great. So now it’s been more about, ‘Okay, we love it. Just do more of what’s there and polish up what you’ve got,’ and that’s what we’ve been trying to do. The word count has gone insane, but it’s under control now. If you like to read.

JS: We wrapped up Pillars, we released the second part of the expansion. We have a few ideas for more patch stuff that we want to do, because there’s still some balance things or content tweaks, but otherwise we’re kind of prototyping for things we want to do in the future, just looking at things that we tried doing earlier that we weren’t able to do, technologically, that we think could make for a much richer experience. We’d really like to do a sequel. Obviously we don’t have anything to announce about that, but that’s what we’re kind of looking into. And people are putting out some really cool stuff. So yeah, that’s extremely vague, but there you go.

Thanks to Josh, Gordon and Brian for taking the time to talk RPGs during GDC.

Edited by Andy Chalk

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).