Lady of Pain

A Walk Through the Planes – An Interview with Monte Cook, Ray Vallese, and Colin McComb

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A few weeks back, I was surprised to learn that a handful of Planescape’s original designers had stumbled into this site and taken a look at some of our coverage. Needless to say, I was ecstatic about this news, and used it as an excuse to reach out and see if they might be interested in answering a few questions about their time there. To my even greater surprise, they were up for it.

Due to the difficulties of interviewing three individuals in wildly different locations and with limited individuality, I decided to conduct this interview via a Google Doc. This had the additional advantage of preventing me from segueing into weird tangents about this setting no one but me even remembers, but at times this meant my questions were a bit repetitive and I was unable to give adequate follow-up questions the way I would’ve in person or by phone. Still, I feel the result worked out well, and is I hope worth reading to anyone with even a passing interest in Planescape, or that turbulent period when TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast. Many thanks to Ray Vallese, Colin McComb, and Monte Cook for taking the time out of their busy schedules.


How did each of you end up working for TSR in the first place?

Monte: The short version is, I’d been working as a freelancer or for other companies for a few years and got invited to come to an interview in Lake Geneva by Tim Brown (a great guy, and probably the best manager the creative TSR team had in my opinion). I had heard terrible things about working at TSR and so I accepted the invite just because I wanted to see the place. And of course all the things I’d heard weren’t true, and so accepted the job offer.

Ray: I love telling this story, because everyone who wants to work in games hates this story. I was recently out of grad school and had a technical editing job in a Chicago suburb. I didn’t love the job or the area and started looking for more interesting jobs elsewhere. I was looking through the classified ads in a Wisconsin newspaper—this was the early 90s, remember—and saw one for a games editor at TSR. I applied, interviewed, and got the job. I had almost no prior RPG experience other than playing D&D a handful of times as a kid. Tim Brown, who hired me, said that’s what made me stand out—that I could bring a fresh perspective to the role. (I had done other kinds of editing and writing by that point in my career, and my graduate degree in Creative Writing no doubt helped.)

Colin: Purest luck, really—I got the gig right out of college. I’d been playing D&D for ages, and picked it up again in college, where I made the (very wise) choice to major in Philosophy. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but… I loved D&D. So I wrote to TSR on the off-chance that they had a position available. Apparently they did—they sent me a copy of the Complete Vikings Handbook and told me to write a short adventure based on that.

That was good enough for them to invite me up for an in-person interview, a writing test in-house, and an armload of Dark Sun stuff as a parting gift. A good experience, I thought, but I guess I’d better get serious about looking for another job. So when they sent me a letter offering me a job immediately after graduation, it was one of the happiest surprises of my life. Plus, it shut up the people who told me a philosophy degree was only good for people who wanted to work in fast food.

How did this eventually lead to writing for the Planescape setting?

Monte: On Fridays during weeks when TSR released a product (which was most weeks), someone would come around, cubicle by cubicle, and drop off a copy on our desks. Literally the first Friday I was there, I was handed a copy of the Planescape boxed set. I poured over it all weekend long (I was utterly unaware of the product or setting before then) and realized it was utterly unlike anything TSR was doing or had ever done. I immediately petitioned to work on the setting, but by that point a lot of the early products had already been designed, so the best I could do was worm my way into Planes of Conflict. From there, I was handed Planewalker’s Handbook, mostly because I think no one else wanted to do it—but it was a great excuse to become a serious expert on the setting, so from there I think I was attached to the setting for as long as I wanted.

Ray: As a new editor at TSR (I started there not long after Monte did, and we were next-door-cubicle neighbors), I was assigned to the fledgling Planescape line. And thank goodness. If I had been randomly assigned to some other line, the rest of my games career may have unfolded very differently. Plus, I may not have become great friends with Monte and Colin if we hadn’t started off by working so closely together in the planes.

Colin: Turns out my philosophy degree was actually useful! I got to talk with Zeb about some of his designs, and during a stop at an airport bar during a trip to a convention, we worked out how the Lady of Pain would deal with threats to the city. In the meantime, Tony DiTerlizzi was showing me some of the art, and on my trips through the graphics area I could see they were doing fantastic work on the layout. I wanted to work on this line. So I pestered and pushed, and they rewarded me with Well of Worlds.

Was it something you were excited about working on–was there any competition for who was on different projects at TSR, or was it more random?

Monte: See above!

Ray: What he said! Within the Planescape team, we were all assigned products by the scheduling manager based on availability, preference, and other factors. So there were times when I had the opportunity to choose what I wanted to work on, to a point—we could submit requests, but we weren’t guaranteed to get those assignments.

Colin: The designers and editors at TSR were generally assigned to specific product groups. We could request different groups, or occasionally be assigned to something outside of our core line. During the development of Planescape, I was working on creating the Birthright campaign setting—I was proud of the work we were doing there, but I saw what they were doing with Planescape and knew that’s where I wanted to be.

What were the initial feelings behind-the-scenes about the product line? Was it popular at TSR, left on its own, or something else?

Monte: I think a lot of people were intimidated by it (in fact, I know they were because they told me so) because it was so different and so intricate. But different and intricate are my wheelhouse so it was perfect for me.

What most people don’t know is that much of Sigil was Zeb’s metaphorical analog for TSR itself. I mean, it was literally run by the Lady of Pain, whose very gaze could kill you (or your product). So behind the scenes, the setting had a very different meaning for everyone there.

Ray: Monte’s right that some people felt intimidated by Planescape, but some also felt that it was a bit pretentious and smug, even condescending. Here was this new setting that deigned to say how the multiverse *really* worked and “looked down” on all the other game worlds. That was never the intention of the Planescape team. But the products were often written in a wry, overly clever voice that smirked at all the clueless bashers stumbling around the multiverse, so I can see how some people took it the wrong way. (Then again, as Monte says later, by the end we did get a bit elitist—the Planescape voice was rubbing off on us—so maybe the reputation wasn’t entirely undeserved.)

Colin: The initial feelings were excitement about such a phenomenal release, as I recall, followed by “but it’s kinda weird” and “don’t fuck up our product lines.” We had a lot of potential for crossover work, but everyone was (understandably!) protective of their particular babies, as we were of Planescape.

Fortunately for the Planescape team, upper management was very hands-off with Planescape, even after it won the Origins Award, and we could get as weird as we wanted.

All of you helped out in different capacities, most famously as lead designer on several products but also editor, proofreader, etc. How were these decided on at the time?

Monte: Can’t say enough about Creative Director Andria Hayday. She was very much an unsung hero for the line and very influential about who worked on what in addition to the consistency of the line. 

Ray: I agree about Andria—she was a fabulous team and line leader. Monte, Colin, and I were hired in different roles. I was hired to be an editor, and they were hired to be designers. So naturally, I was primarily the editor on products, and they were primarily designers. Over time, I also got the chance to design some things myself. (The other primary Planescape editor of that era was Michele Carter, who deserves just as much credit as any of us. And, of course, if you look at all the Planescape products released over time, many other people made their own great contributions.)

Colin: For the actual roles on the projects, that was (as noted above) generally on the basis of how we were hired. Ray was the rare exception of an editor who could cross over into design—to my recollection, Lester Smith was the only designer who ever crossed into editing.

How much and how were these products playtested? How consistent did that stay?

Monte: Regarding playtesting… not enough. It was spotty. I remember playtesting Dead Gods and Tales from the Infinite Staircase. And “Squaring the Circle” from Hellbound. There were others, but I wish there’d been more. 

Colin: As Monte says above, we all wanted more playtesting but… well, while we all had weekly game nights with cross sections of the company, the volume of material every team produced made testing it all simply impossible. The larger products tended to get more love because we had more time, but small adventures? We just had to go with our guts.

I’m very familiar with the editorial process in traditional publishing, but have no idea what exactly the editor does on RPG supplements. What is their relationship with the designer, and how much collaboration is there between them?

Ray: As a designer was writing a product, I might discuss it with them generally to get a sense of what they were doing, but usually I was busy with a different project of my own at the time. Once they finished writing and I started editing, they were off writing the next thing. The tight schedule didn’t allow for much overlap.

As the editor, it was my job to turn the manuscript into the best finished product I could, which included editing the words and game stats (of course), but also considering larger issues like structure, plot, playability, how things would fit in the layout, etc. Sometimes I’d fill in gaps or rewrite text. The designer would also submit an art and map order describing what they wanted, and I’d work with the artists and cartographers to produce those pieces. (Getting regular packages of original art from Tony DiTerlizzi and other talented artists was a treat!) I’d draw a crude storyboard of how the text, art, and maps should be arranged on each page throughout the book and pass it all to the production team for layout. Later I’d proof the galleys and make changes as needed—and often write new pull quotes to fill in holes in the spreads. I think writing the back cover copy was my final step before it went off to the printer. During all of these stages, I’d communicate regularly with the designer as needed to discuss changes, brainstorm ideas, etc.

A few weeks or a month after sending everything to the printer, I’d get a copy of the published product, open it up, and immediately spot three typos. This is the way.

Colin: The Planescape editors were really the exception to the rule in this. Ray and Michele kept the designers involved and we had a good idea where they were in the process. On a number of other projects, it was more the norm to hand over our finished package (written text, art orders, map orders, possibly rough storyboards) and then… not hear about it. We could walk through the graphics departments and cartography to see the maps being drawn or books being laid out.

How did collaboration work between the written editorial team and the artists/cartographers? How much direction were they given?

Ray: See above. The designers wrote the initial descriptions of the desired illustrations and drew rough map sketches. I’d expand on them as needed and turn it all over to our art department, who assigned the artists and cartographers (some were in house at TSR, and some—like Tony D—were freelancers). They’d usually provide early sketches that the designers and I would review, then they’d use our feedback to make the final versions. Sticking to the budget and schedule were critical. We couldn’t have them redraw a piece over and over. The amount of direction given differed with each person. Some liked getting tons of detail. For others, especially after we developed a good working relationship, we could just say “A balor wrecks a tavern” and we knew they’d do a great job.

Colin: To add to what Ray’s saying, designers tended to be responsible for the rough draft of the maps. Most of us had no real artistic talent, so our turnovers tended to look more like a DM’s dungeon sketches. Once the cartographers started working on them, we could walk over and answer questions or talk about what we’d intended, and then watch them flesh out that vision. They might also share some of the knowledge they’d picked up over the years (for instance, Diesel telling me, “Rivers don’t work like that” on one of my early turnovers, which inspired me to learn more about geography and geology and then weather patterns). I especially enjoyed watching Lazz paint tiny details into his maps—we had some good chats about Bosch and Bruegel.

How much did the design team contribute to each other’s work? Was there much internal feedback about the direction releases were taking?

Monte: A lot. I’d say post Planewalker’s Handbook, most of the entirety of the line came out of long discussions between Colin, Ray, editor Michele Carter, and myself.

Ray: Yeah. Once the four of us became the core team, we’d kick around ideas, seize on the ones we all liked, and add more and more (lots of “Ooh! What about . . .”) until we had the bones of a cool new product. Then the designer would get to work.

Colin: That’s exactly it. Zeb left a bunch of toys behind in his office when he left TSR. When Ray moved in, he started collecting action figures, probably as a lure to get people down there. It worked (ask about “Ray’s Cube Comics & Stories”!)—we’d have impromptu meetings there most mornings, mostly free-form but occasionally turning into brainstorming sessions. We definitely laid plans, shared ideas, and talked about some of the concepts we planned to introduce.

Ray: Oh boy. I started with a couple of action-figure-type toys that Zeb left behind and added a few, but things really took off when our TSR colleague and friend Steven Schend donated a huge box with dozens of action figures (and things that could double as action figures): superheroes from Marvel and DC, Star Trek figures, apes, Pez dispensers—you name it. We started setting up funny scenes on one of my desks that eventually became an exclusive staging ground for what we came to call Ray’s Cube Comics & Stories. Every day—sometimes multiple times a day—one of us would set up a scene with funny dialogue between the characters, mainly to amuse each other, but before long, other TSR folks would gather to see the new “issue” as well. We established an absurd continuity that led to long-running plots with crazy characters. For example, we had many different Spider-Man figures, and they formed a sort of gentleman’s club whose name I won’t repeat here. To this day, I can simply think back to some of my favorite Ray’s Cube stories and find myself laughing.

And there’s a Planescape connection as well: one of the action figures was Violator, a tall gray creature from the Spawn comic. For some reason, we gave him the personality and voice of Barney Gumble from The Simpsons. So we called him Barnelator. He was the goofy star of many Ray’s Cube stories. And then one day Monte created a new kind of yugoloth called a baernaloth for the Planes of Conflict Monstrous Supplement. If you look at pictures of Violator and a baernaloth, you’ll see the connection.

Colin: I’ll add that when I left TSR, they gifted Barnelator, Venom, and Green Goblin to me. All of those guys are Christmas decorations now.

The campaign setting was first designed by Zeb Cook, who left soon after. Who (if anyone) was in charge of its direction once he was gone? What did his absence mean for its continuation?

Monte: For a little while editor David Wise was kind of in charge (and to be fair, had a lot to do with the awesomeness of the original boxed set alongside Zeb, and probably worked with Tony DiTerlizzi even more than Zeb did, which was crucial for that product), but the aforementioned Andria really took and kept the helm almost until WotC bought TSR.

Colin: 100% what Monte said. Andria was a real hero for the line. Now that I think about it, it’s possible she and Dave (who would be promoted to the manager for the whole department) managed to shield us from the Eye of Sauron—getting us the resources we needed while keeping management from paying too much attention to us.

Initially, what was the long-term plan for where the setting would go (i.e. releasesthe box & adventure format seemed to be the original plan)? How much of a factor did sales play into this, and how aware were all of you made aware of the business side of development? What type of pressure was there to make things that would sell?

Monte: As far as I know, the initial plan was carried out: big beautiful boxed sets with a few adventures and sourcebooks. Things (to me) got really interesting when the “Planes of…” boxes were finished because that was just all the basics. To me, the line got particularly cool with things like Uncaged, Hellbound, Dead Gods, and so forth, because all that basic stuff (who lives in which plane, etc.) was just foundation.

Sales had a big influence on later products. The big (expensive) boxed sets did not sell well. Dead Gods, originally, was meant to be a boxed set very similar to Hellbound, for example. And then, of course, the biggest one was that Faction War wasn’t at all meant to be the final product! There was supposed to be a product that followed on its heels that sort of put everything back together again (but in a different way). We were coming up with a few new factions, existing factions had merged, etc.


If you’re a Twin Peaks fan, it was a little like ending the series with Agent Cooper smashing his head in the mirror and saying “where’s Annie?” 

Ray: What a great reference. 🙂  I remember answering questions in an online forum many years ago about Faction War. Some of the commenters were certain that TSR management had told us to kill off Planescape in Faction War and that I was lying to cover it up. (Ah, the internet . . .) As Monte said, we wrote Faction War with the intention to break things, explore the ramifications in a few other products for a while, then rebuild. But we never got the chance. I can’t say what the rebuilding would have looked like. If we ever had concrete plans, they are lost to time. (Spoiler: we probably didn’t have concrete plans. We jumped off the cliff and intended to build our wings on the way down.)

Monte: As another television-related aside, I hear creators of shows I love, like Arrested Development and Community, talk about how they were continually told to make their shows more approachable, more like what people were used to, and generally less dense. I feel like we got a lot of similar notes at the end of Planescape.

And then at WotC, the final nail in the coffin was that the mood was very, “If we’re going to talk about the planes, let’s bring back the good old days of Queen of the Demonweb Pits.” I personally tried to toe that line with flashback products like A Paladin in Hell, but even that became very much “not Planescape.”

Colin: I left for Black Isle Studios before the end of the line, but yeah—sales were bad across the board for TSR, and management responded by streamlining and downsizing most products. We didn’t get much insight into the business side—rumors and secrets, whispers and inferences. 

A few of the Planescape products are particularly idiosyncratic: On Hallowed Ground, Uncaged, Faces of Evil, and Hellbound in particular are fairly singular. Were these sorts of projects pitched by the designers–or how were they approved?

Monte: I’m sure the others have insights, but I’d say generally what would happen is that someone above us might say, “we need an NPC book.” And then Ray and Val would put together something like Uncaged, as non-standard an NPC book as you’re likely to get. Hellbound was just supposed to be a boxed adventure/setting product and we made it what it became. So we had a lot of leeway to take suggestions from others and make them, well, Planescapey.

Ray: We liked to half-jokingly say “That’s the Planescape twist!” while making a little twisty gesture with one hand. Why do a basic thing when you can do a cool or weird thing? Why do a cool or weird thing when you can do a cooler or weirder thing? That sort of thinking drove our approach. Uncaged is a good example. I don’t remember the parameters of the original assignment—probably just to do a book of NPCs, as Monte said. But I wanted to make it different from the other NPC books I’d seen. (Actually, this reminds me of what Tim Brown said when he hired me—that it was because I wasn’t steeped in years of D&D and “how things are done.” In some ways that was a detriment, but I think it helped me when designing products.) By the way, the credit for that book is R.V. Vallese, even though my middle initial is not V, to recognize that my wife Val (a skilled writer) contributed a lot.

Colin: Every year, our product groups gathered and were given a super-broad outline of what our product lines’ “budgets” were. That is, what formats did we have available and the page count (boxed set vs. perfect bound vs. saddle stitch), whether the product was an adventure or a sourcebook, and other details. Then we’d plan what projects could fit into those constraints. Once the big boxed sets were out of the way, we got to pitch our visions to our managers, and they were generally more than happy to let us run with our craziness.

Planescape had multiple metaplots from its inception, the biggest of all being the fall and rise of Orcus. How much of its resolution was planned from the beginning?

Monte: The beginning? Very likely none of it. I think that I was really jonesing to bring Orcus back, and it was very much an attempt to push at the limitations we’d been given to see just how far we could go (and the truth was, no one was paying attention because—little did we know—the company was falling apart at the time and we could have probably even gone farther).

Ray: Orcus was all Monte’s, but as an editor, I loved combing through established releases to look for seeds we could expand on in future products. That was my first step with Uncaged—make a list of NPCs mentioned in previous books who seemed ripe for further development. (Some of this tendency might have carried over from my love of reading comics and reveling in complex Marvel continuity.) The Great Modron March came to be this way. We realized that the march was mentioned in various Planescape products, so we expanded the concept in its own book. A lot of what happened in Faction War grew out of things that had come before. We tried to balance doing new stuff all the time (the planes were infinite, after all) with picking up threads from older books.

Colin: I know it can seem like we had a plan! Generally, though, it was picking up on those ideas and nourishing them. Sometimes it felt like an experiment in ret-conning and magnifying throwaway lines—and Planescape was rich with so many possibilities. That’s one of the reasons I loved it so much.

Speaking of which, how much openness did all of you have to play with the TSR multiverse and make changes? Were there certain things that were off-limits? Was it difficult to make Planescape work with the vast multitude of other TSR releases?

Monte: The only limitation I remember in that regard was with the Forgotten Realms—FR was too important for us to um, fuck with. We were, in fact, encouraged to incorporate things from other settings so that PS could be the glue that held everything together. So we’d frequently talk about a prime from Toril, or one from Athas or whatever. I think the truth is, though, we didn’t care very much what was going on in the other settings at that point. (I’ll just be honest: toward the end, the Planescape team was pretty insular and elitist. A bunch of young hipsters, really. Ah, youth.)

I also remember we had to at least give lip service to crystal spheres so we didn’t utterly invalidate Spelljammer, but whatever.

Ray: As Monte said, we could incorporate things, but we couldn’t break other settings. (I do remember some fans taking umbrage at an NPC in Uncaged who claimed that he was directly responsible for monumental events that transpired on other game worlds. This sort of thing also played into the “Planescape thinks it’s better than the rest of us” attitude mentioned earlier.)

At my first Gen Con with TSR, we ran Planescape demos in the beloved old TSR castle. Two of us ran each demo. The hook was that during the demo, one of the characters would go through a portal to another game world—at which point one of us walked that player over to the Forgotten Realms demo, or the Dark Sun demo, or the Ravenloft demo, etc., and their character stepped out into the middle of whatever was happening on that world. They had to find a thingamabob or get information, then return through the portal to the Planescape demo to help their fellow cutters win the day. It was a simple but effective way to show how Planescape connected everything.

Colin: We could talk about other worlds, but we couldn’t do anything to change them. They all had their own mysteries, and wanted to keep our shit out of their sandboxes. The other teams would have utterly killed us if we’d tried, and they’d have been right to do it. I remember Bill Connors telling me that we were under no circumstances to do anything to Ravenloft and not even to hint at the identity of the dark powers that ruled that place. 

I’ll add that fans of those other worlds definitely didn’t want us there either. During the time when Greyhawk was about to be canceled—and possibly resurrected—I tossed a line into On Hallowed Ground about Oerth: “Chant is, Oerth is dying anyway.” It was intended to be an acknowledgement of their discussions on their message boards, but man, did they flip out on me online for daring to express this.

Despite Planescape existing across a large number of infinite planes, did certain parts of the setting feel limiting? Were there planar ideas you wanted to explore but couldn’t because of its basis on older D&D concepts?

Monte: I felt very limited by the traditional D&D alignments and their corresponding planes. I was much more interested in the weird new places we could go and kind of bored with whatever was going on on Mount Olympus or some other more traditional realms. I had dreams of expanding the cosmology beyond the Great Wheel, which I liked for its elegance but didn’t like for its boundaries. I have memories of pushing for the introduction of an entirely new plane that’s just been discovered. (Ironically, the place where that actually happened was in Bruce Cordell’s Gates of Firestorm Peak where he added the Far Realm without any reference to Planescape or the Great Wheel at all, mostly because he was a brand new designer at the time and literally didn’t know any better. And the Far Realm became a big deal over the years—because of course it did, it was really cool and new.)

Ray: I felt like we did too much in Sigil, and some factions got a lot more attention than others did. Maybe it’s because some were inherently more interesting or more usable in plots and adventures. We also steered away from focusing too much on the Lady of Pain, since she was meant to be mysterious and unknowable, but that was to be faithful to the concept, not due to external constraints.

Colin: What Zeb created was a wonderful cosmological framework on the existing bones of D&D while smoothing over some of the contradictions. The Planes of Good in general felt somewhat limiting at the time—of course, I was a young rivethead, full of angst and rage, so I didn’t see the real possibilities of adventures without conflict and blood. And as Monte points out, the neat segmentation of belief in traditional alignment structures could limit us too, as could the reliance on the real-world pantheons. Once I really got started working on Planescape, I don’t recall setting anything important in the realms of those powers—it was the spaces around them that were more interesting.

What were the parts of the setting you were most excited about designing for?


Monte: I was more interested in the weird corners of the multiverse than Sigil. I mean, I loved Sigil, but I didn’t know what more I could add to it. So things like Guide to the Astral Plane were really fun for me because I felt like I could really explore weird ideas and new concepts.

Colin: The Lower Planes, hands down. It was an opportunity to get weird and disgusting, and to explore the darker corners of human thought and behavior (before the internet showed me how much darker those corners could get). I was doing research on authoritarian regimes and atrocities, serial killers, deep into horror movies… all of that was fascinating to me in trying to understand people, and to express the looming senses of dread and oppression that felt like they defined my Cold War childhood.

What were your favorite releases? 

Monte: So many great ones. I love Uncaged and Faces of Evil. I love the original boxed set. I have a real fondness for most of the stuff I worked on (arrogant, much, Monte?) But if you had to put a gun to my head I’d probably say Dead Gods is what I’m most proud of.

Ray: Perhaps not surprisingly, Uncaged is my favorite because I had so much fun designing that book. It was also my first major work as a designer. I had previously co-designed the adventure Fires of Dis (the powers that be asked me to revise the manuscript submitted by the original author) and fully designed the adventure Something Wild, but Uncaged was a big, meaty book that took a lot of time and work to get right. I also love Hellbound, Faces of Evil, the Factol’s Manifesto, and the original boxed set, which I kept going back to as a reminder of the tone to strive for with each new product.

Colin: Of what I wrote, it’d be Faces of Evil, Hellbound, and Planes of Conflict. I was already proud of my turnover for Faces, and Ray made it so much better (if you liked Xanxost, credit Ray! He took my slaad baby and made Xanxost a slaad legend). For the line in general, the original boxed set, Dead Gods, Uncaged, and Faces of Evil. Those seem like a great representation of the line.

Aside from the obvious Player’s Primer to the Outlands, were there any releases you were disappointed with (i.e. the ones that you knew could use more development, but needed to be released anyhow)?

Monte: Oh, there are tons of answers to this, but I’ll say Monstrous Compendium III. Most people don’t even know this book was released, and that’s just fine by me. Basically, I had just a few days to take a manuscript that was already underwritten, written by someone who didn’t even really like Planescape let alone know anything about it, and make it a Planescape release.

Ray: Fun fact: that Outlands box was the first Planescape product I worked on after landing at TSR. The book was fine; the audio CD (which we had less control over) was . . . let’s just say a mystery to us all. I guess I was also disappointed in Faction War, not because of what we did with the book, but because of how the audience perceived it in the wake of the cancellation of the line. That taint might keep players from enjoying what I think is a fun mega-adventure.

Colin: Ugh, Player’s Primer. I had honestly forgotten it existed—just completely expunged it from my mind until recently, and yep, the corpse still stinks. It didn’t need more development, it needed no development. It was a redirection of our resources to the owner’s brother and his attempt to revive TSR in Hollywood… but it wasn’t enough money to actually make quality products, and as I recall, we weren’t allowed any substantive feedback like, “Please make this baatezu sound more ominous and less like a stereotypical New York cabbie.”

Man, now I’m all mad about it again.

Was there any relationship between the game designers and the Planescape novels, or were they completely their own thing? Ray, how did you end up writing the novelization of Torment?

Ray: As far as I can recall, the novels (like the Blood War trilogy and Pages of Pain) were completely their own thing. We on the RPG team read them and enjoyed them once they were published, but we had no hand in creating them. By the time the Torment novelization came along, I was no longer a full-time TSR employee but still did lots of freelance work for the company (and later for WotC), which may have been one reason an editor in the book department offered it to me and my wife Val. The problem was, we had to write the book while the computer game was still in development. We reviewed extensive notes from the Interplay team, but those notes didn’t cover the whole game or even the final design choices. Unfortunately, the novelization was on a tight schedule, so we were told to make up the rest. We did, but it meant much of the book didn’t follow the final game very well, which understandably upset fans of the game.

Colin: Yeah, Ray and Val got a bit of a raw deal on that. Our game was supposed to ship much earlier than it did, but the success of Fallout meant that Fallout 2 was rushed into production, and the Torment team got shoved over onto that, thus delaying not only our launch, but a lot of pre production work. So the Valleses were working in a near-vacuum and had to plan, outline, write, and finish their book before we even knew how the game would end. When you consider editing time, pre-press, printing, and distribution, this meant that they had to be finished with the book probably a year before we were done with the game. There’s a lot of iteration and change that happens in a year of game development—it’s a minor miracle they were able to be as close as they were, and on its own merits, the Vallese novelization is a fine read.

Ray: <discreetly slips Colin that $20 bill we discussed>

Colin: I’m rich! Watch out, suckas!

What was the relationship between the folks at TSR and what was going on with Torment? Colin, what was it like to leave the company and find yourself so soon back working on the Planescape universe?

Monte: I doubt I have anything to add that Colin wouldn’t cover in far more depth than I could. I will say that the entire PS team at the time got to go down to Interplay and talk with Chris, et al, and that was fun. Ironically, Zeb worked there at the time as well so we got to hang with him too.

Colin: Planescape was actually the reason Zeb and I were hired there! I was originally going to be working on a Playstation game similar to King’s Field, which you may know as an early release by From Software of Dark Souls fame, while Zeb was going to be working on a PC game similar to Stonekeep, while Chris Avellone’s team was working on Planescape: Last Rites. A few months after I was hired, management realized that having three Planescape computer games in production was perhaps too many eggs in one basket, canceled two of them, and moved me onto Last Rites, which later became Torment. A part of my responsibilities was to help keep the lore true, and I was thrilled to do that.

(I may have mentioned that I really loved Planescape.)

What did everyone think about Torment (if you played it), and does it seem odd that this obscure PC game has somewhat overshadowed the rest of the campaign setting?

Monte: Loved it. But it really shows how—at the time—a rather overlooked digital game can overshadow a tabletop game. The sales numbers for late 90s D&D products were embarrassingly low, and Planescape was near the bottom of our sales list. So no, it doesn’t seem odd to me. I’m just glad that lead designer Chris Avellone was such a true PS fan and kept not just the names and places but the mood and tone in the game.

Ray: I loved it too and was happy to incorporate as much of it as I could into the novelization.

Colin: I’m probably too biased to answer this question, but I was really proud of our work, and I desperately hoped it would help keep the line alive. Given the disparity of audience sizes between the tabletop markets and the computer markets, I’m not really surprised. Torment’s sales were “disappointing” at launch, and wound up selling “only” 400-500,000 in its first year. I never got concrete sales numbers for the Planescape line, but I recall someone mentioning the first boxed set did well at around 75,000.


What were the feelings of everyone at TSR during the dark period of bankruptcy and buyout? Was everyone searching for work elsewhere?

Monte: It was scary and disheartening. A lot of people left, or made plans to leave. It turned out really, really well for me in the long run (pre-Hasbro WotC was a decent place to work, paid well, gave me great opportunities, and I absolutely fell in love with the Pacific Northwest). 

Ray: Scary indeed. Lots of emergency meetings called and hard truths faced. I recall that Monte and I were walking to one such meeting in the warehouse (that choice of location alone was a red flag) when we passed by a bathroom where a sink faucet had been left running. One of us stopped to turn it off and said something like “I think we need to save every cent we can.”

How did the acquisition by Wizards of the Coast affect what was being made?

Monte: It was weird. WotC didn’t know what to do with Planescape. They just knew the boxed sets had lost a lot of money for TSR. WotC president Peter Adkison loved planar stuff (he wrote system agnostic The Primal Order, years before, which was very gods and planes focused). But he wanted guys hitting demons with swords, not people using slang he didn’t understand to discuss philosophy and ethics. Planescape didn’t last very long at WotC, and I think only a very few of us mourned its passing.

Fans have pieced together that the original plan for Faction War was for it to only be the beginning of a three-part adventure. Do any of you remember what was originally planned for the continuation of this story, or for the setting as a whole?

Monte: Letting Ray take this one (other than what I mentioned earlier, I honestly don’t remember much about the specific plans).

Ray: This ties back to my earlier answer about Faction War. We planned FW and its aftermath (detailed in the book) meticulously. We had vague ideas of following up on plot threads (new factions, new paradigm in Sigil) in assorted products for a while—basically, for as long as we could keep it interesting—and then we’d do another big adventure. It wouldn’t have put everything back the way it had been, since that would have been boring. But we did want to clean up the mess a bit. So it wasn’t a trilogy—more like bookend adventures with a handful of products in between. But nothing after Faction War was even on the schedule, so we hadn’t made any solid plans, and thus I can’t share any tidbits now.

Several late-90s AD&D releases (Guide to Hell, Warriors of Heaven, Vortex of Madness) seemed to originate for Planescape before becoming generalized—was this actually what happened? What were the feelings about this?

Monte: None of those products started life as Planescape products that were then generalized. Honestly, I’ve barely looked at them and don’t suspect much of Planescape lived on there. I think I was, personally, disgruntled with the loss of PS and resented that it was being swept under the carpet to make room for these general things. I’m not sure I can look at any D&D planar product post-PS without some feeling of dissatisfaction. 

Colin: I know that some of the designers on those projects were fans of Planescape and the way we’d managed to take fantasy games beyond swords and wizards, but I don’t think they were allowed to get very Planescapey with their releases. Like Monte, I have a hard time with the reintroduction of “Hell is a place where you go hit things with a sword.” I’ll note that I admire Chris Pramas’s work, and appreciate that he tried to respect our legacy. It just felt a lot like WotC was directing people specifically to overwrite what we’d done.

Many of the later Planescape releases had extremely small print runs, such that it seems odd they were put forth if they were never supposed to give a chance. Was anyone clear on the thought process behind this? Was it disappointing to see the setting fade away the way it did?

Monte: TSR was mismanaged in ways even today we’re only now discovering. I can’t explain any of that. But disappointing? Absolutely.

Colin: The utter impermeability of the decision making at TSR was mindboggling. None of the people in the executive offices played the game, and I suspect most of them didn’t even understand it or the audience they were serving. There was a joke that Lorraine Williams (heir of the Dille Family Trust) bought TSR to keep their legal interest in the Buck Rogers IP alive—they certainly threw enough money at developing various aborted Buck Rogers game titles.

So yeah, it was disappointing. Maddening, even. At the same time, we still got to make these cool things.

All of you have continued working in games since leaving D&D behind. Yet projects like Torment: Tides of Numenera and Planebreaker still hearken back to your Planescape days in the 90s. If Hasbro were to approach you about it, would you still be interested in returning to that world?

Monte: Honestly, if Hasbro handed me Planescape to publish independent of them, maybe. But I can create a long list of very improbable things that are all much more likely than my working for WotC/Hasbro ever again.

Mostly, though, I think it’s nice to look back on what we created with fondness and be satisfied with it rather than try to “reboot” an old setting that had its day in the sun.

I just want to add, I look back on my time as part of the Planescape Design Team as one of the best periods of my life. Lots of creativity, lots of fun, and lots of great friendships. I’m proud to have been a part of it and feel fortunate to be given the opportunity.

Ray: I echo those sentiments about my years on Planescape being some of the best in my life, for many reasons.

Working on Planescape-adjacent projects like the ones you mentioned (plus Beyond Countless Doorways, published by one of Monte’s former companies) is a lot of fun, but they can’t recreate the original magic of Planescape, nor should they try. That said, if WotC/Hasbro brought it back and asked me to be part of it, I’d probably say yes—it would be an honor and a joy to be invited back to the setting after all these years. But so many great things in a similar vein have been done over the past few decades, there may no longer be a need to resurrect Planescape. And it wouldn’t be the same if we tried.

Colin: At Gen Con a few years back, Tony DiTerlizzi and I were talking about what we’d do if they offered, and agreed we’d want full creative control and some ownership. I don’t see that happening.

As Monte and Ray said, though, I’m not sure a setting revival is necessary. We had the extreme good fortune to be there with amazing people, developing a setting that has become legendary (can I say ‘legendary’? screw it, I’m gonna say it). Planescape laid the foundation for other projects (directly or not), helped people redefine what’s possible with fantasy, and opened eyes and imaginations beyond what we imagined was possible.

I’d love to return to the planes—working with the Planescape team was such a wonderful, formative, amazing experience. But I’d want to make sure we were making something truly creative on its own merits, rather than an appeal to old glories.

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