Longtime fans of Fallout may still bristle at the name "Van Buren"; that was the codename for the original Fallout 3, which was cancelled by former series publisher Interplay Entertainment following a company shift away from PC titles. Eventually, the Fallout license was taken over by Bethesda Softworks and Fallout 3 was completely reimagined, but the Van Buren project in its original form was never realized.
Those who still long for Interplay's third Fallout — from which some story and gameplay details, as well as a tech demo, have eked out over the years — would have likely found Van Buren designer Chris Avellone's talk at NYU Game Center's Practice 2015 conference about the game's pen and paper roots to be both exciting and heartbreaking.
Avellone, whose credits include titles like Fallout, Planescape: Torment and Alpha Protocol, spoke at the annual summit on all matters of game design. His talk detailed how his lifelong interest in games like Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop RPGs played a part in the design of Fallout 3: Van Buren. His hourlong presentation included a plethora of photos, showing off the unique and detailed binders he created to aid the game's designers, elaborating on such facets of the game as character roles, the bestiary and the areas of exploration.
Some of the notable elements Avellone shared included that your protagonist, an accused criminal, traveled with a team of companions whose decisions affected the other inhabitants of the in-game world. While the game did not offer multiplayer, the player's team would begin to see the ramifications of the other team's decision-making, which was controlled by the game's AI, Avellone explained.
Van Buren was to be a cinematic game
For the purposes of his paper playtest, he had two separate teams of six fellow developers serve as the two sets of characters. Avellone would implement the effects of choices made by each group into the other's gameplay session unbeknownst to them. In that sense, the tabletop version of Fallout 3: Van Buren became a tacitly competitive game in which you were actually fighting against another team to prevent or inflict further damage upon your world.
Details like these were not even the most fascinating or intricately developed. The audience was most taken with an idea Avellone described that allowed each player to choose theme music for their character. In the interest of creating a cinematic experience even without the visuals, Avellone's guidebook asked that players choose a unique soundclip which would add a 50 percent stat bonus to any skill.
The theme music was up to the player to choose, but selecting something from the game itself would offer additional advantages.
Because Fallout 3: Van Buren was to be a cinematic and turn-based game, Avellone said, it lent itself well to the pen and paper format. Cutscenes in the game were largely presented like slides, anyway, meaning they were easy to translate to the book format. Because gameplay was more strategic than about quick action, the patience required of a lengthy sit-down game session also made sense as a playtest method.
Although the project was ultimately canceled, Avellone was able to carry over some of his ideas to a later game: Fallout: New Vegas, which he worked on with Obsidian Entertainment. He was able to salvage his enormous binder of non-playable characters created for the Van Buren prototyping for use in the later game, as well as re-use some of the areas designed for Van Buren's Boulder, Colo. setting — all of which, he noted, were created in the pen and paper format first.
Fallout 3: Van Buren may never see the light of day, and Avellone's quick peek into its handcrafted development proved that, while spiritual successors like the recent Fallout 4 are nothing to complain about, the project was something to behold.