Heretic Operative Interview
C Prompt Games is a new studio founded by industry veterans Ian Fischer and Robert Fermier, who previous worked together at Ensemble Studios and Robot Entertainment. They just recently announced C Prompt Games’ first title Heretic Operative, which they describe as a narrative strategy RPG, and it will be available early 2019 on Steam. Ian and Robert were kind enough to take the time to answer several of our questions about their upcoming game.
Johnathan Stringer (RPGamer): What is the goal and vision of C Prompt Games? Is there a back story into the studio’s creation?
Ian Fischer and Robert Fermier (C Prompt Games): Ian and I have worked together for years and we share similar perspectives on design. Among these, we are motivated by system-based design and emergence in games. We feel the best stories in games are the ones that players make for themselves as they play, and we like to think about how to best deliver those experiences. That is not something that everyone understands or enjoys and our time working in larger teams let us experience some of the problems you can have trying to get unique designs to retain their uniqueness in that environment. We started C Prompt to create a place that was about making games that focus on strategy, systems, and deep, player-created narrative.
JS: What is Heretic Operative? Can you give us a high level description of the game? What are some of the design and gameplay highlights that sets it apart, and what is the planned release date and platform?
IA/RF: In terms of gameplay, Heretic Operative is a “narrative strategy RPG” — which basically means that it takes story and character elements of an RPG, and merges them the resource management and structure of a board game.
You play as the leader of a band of Heretics — a secret society of magic users in a world where magic has been outlawed by the Church. Magic is being used to bring about huge disasters by a rival group of mages called the Cultus Arcanum (or just “the Cult”). Caught between these two warring factions, the Heretics have to find a way to save the world while being hunted by both sides.
Turns play out fairly differently based on a player’s strategy (and how well things have been going with that strategy). In general, you think a lot about locations. There are different places on the map and every place has a certain character, which is produced by the kinds of adventures likely at the location and the kinds of actions that can be taken there. So, first, you are thinking about the skills your operative has (or operatives have if you have been recruiting) and how they can be put to use. Are you trying to build up your ability in magic and learn new spells? You might want to try to get into the Elven Archive. Do you have an agent with high corruption that you are worried about losing? If you can get them to the Desolate Isle, there are a lot of options there for cleansing. Are you trying to gear up a bit more? There are shops in the Museum District, but you are likely to run into Templars from the Church there, so make sure you are sending an operative with high social skill, who can talk his way out of the situations he’s likely to get into.
Of course, the Cult has plans too, so these are going to alter some of that planning. You might have wanted to go to the Elven Archive, but they Cult has agents back at your Hideout. You should probably deal with that first. (Because this is something of a shadow war, with both your Operatives and the Cult moving about secretly, there are not really front lines. The Orcs, however, are more overt and obvious.) Similarly, if the Cult’s plot has been progressing, there are other conditions that can change things for you. You might have wanted to go to Copec’s Tavern to recruit a new Operative, but maybe the Cult just found and killed her. Or perhaps they flooded the location between you and the Tavern, so you cannot go anywhere at the moment.
So, you are limited in your movement and action — there are items and spells that can change this (and some Operatives have special abilities that alter it too) but in general you have two actions per turn. You decide who you are going to move and where they are going to go. Once in the location, you can take an action there. Assuming you have the resources required, you can, for example, visit a shop at the location to buy an item or recruit one of the townsfolk to work for you. (The townsfolk can do different things — a spy could provide you with rumors every turn, a ship captain could provide you fast movement to different locations.)
At the end of your turn, if you have Operatives in locations with enemies, you have combat. Combat or not, there is also a chance for an adventure at the location at this point, so you often have something occur and have to make a choice about what to do. Maybe you sent your Operative to Woodbridge because it is a good location to earn some gold but while she is there a bull gets loose and starts rampaging about. Will you put your Operative at risk and have them try to stop the bull and save people? Is your Operative and their mission too valuable to risk and the people need to deal with the bull on their own?
The loop of movement, action, adventure, and combat is the heart of the gameplay.
It is a Steam release for Windows, and will be out in early 2019.
JS: Are there any future plans for a console, handheld, or GOG.com release?
IA/RF: Not that we are talking about now.
JS: Many video game RPGs have board game or table-top elements baked in, especially with dice rolls, but they are fairly hidden to the player. Why are you going with the board game focus? What advantages does this design decision give the game?
IA/RF: From the beginning we knew that we wanted to bring some of the resource management and strategy elements that we loved into a more RPG-flavored format. So we started more from the board game side, and moved into the RPG side once we realized there was a great opportunity to merge the two. The mechanics of a board game allow for you to make some really impactful decisions with your characters. Sometimes the scale is more intimate, like whether or not you can save a troubled mage from falling into corruption. Sometimes it is broader, like whether you can spare a town from destruction or how you are going to execute your plan to stop the Cult.
JS: An issue that some narrative board games have is once the player has played through certain card or story elements, they know many of the outcomes and then the story events have less impact. How do you avoid this, and what sort of replayability will Heretic Operative have? Is this a plot-driven story, or more of an adventure shaped by events, for example drawing specific event cards?
IA/RF: Having a lot of replayability is very important to us. The highest level story beats of a game play out the same depending on which Story deck you are playing with — basically which magical disaster the Cult is using to wreak havoc on the world. But this is really just the skeleton that everything else hangs off of. The real meat of the game comes in what happens along the way. You have a lot of freedom in where you go, who you are going to recruit, and how you are going to answer the threats that arise.
In our opinion, the most powerful stories are the ones that arise organically from your decisions and your interactions with the world and the characters in it. Seeing a character fall into corruption because you pushed them too far, or narrowly escaping disaster because of the plan you came up with and executed… this is what creates a very compelling and very personal story. Of course, on top of that there are hundreds of cards in the game that tell their own pieces of the story, so it never really plays the same way twice.
JS: How are the campaigns structured, and approximately how long will they be?
IA/RF: There are six Story decks and four Cult decks that, in combination, change up how the game plays out. You start out with only one of each unlocked but as you complete games (win or lose), you open up additional ones.
Each combination plays out a little differently, but typically a game takes 45-90 minutes to play.
JS: Can you lose in Heretic Operative? Many boardgames allow the player, or players, to flat out die or lose, and game over, but most video games offer save points to restart after failure. Being able to reload a save impacts many design decisions around a game, how does Heretic Operative function in this regard?
IA/RF: Yes, you can definitely lose, and in fact much more so than a typical linear RPG. Your decisions can lead to defeat in a number of different ways — one of the strengths of the RPG plus board game format is that your decisions can have real and wide-ranging consequences!
You can save your game freely, and players are more than welcome to use their save games to experiment with different approaches. However the “design intent” is closer to a roguelike philosophy of accepting the outcome of your decisions and trying again to see how they may play out differently. Progress towards opening up new Story / Cult decks or new Operatives happens even when you lose, so that there’s never pressure to play a perfect game or penalize experimentation.
JS: You have described Heretic Operative as a narrative strategy RPG, can you share some info on the character progression system?
IA/RF: There is intentionally not a traditional XP or leveling system, but as your operatives go on adventures they can gain additional stats or inventory items, and there are 50+ spells to learn. In addition to a fast-paced combat system, a character’s skills are also really important for non-combat challenges like being diplomatic or deciphering an ancient text.
JS: Can you describe the combat mechanics? What makes it a fast-paced combat system?
IA/RF: Without going into too much detail, when you go into combat your opponent has a rank. Your Operative has a set of options — abilities, equipment, and (especially) spells. Each of your abilities allows you to throw dice to get Battle Points. You have three rounds (so three choices) to equal or better the enemy’s Combat Rank. Some enemies have special abilities that change how you think about your attack options. Your options all have a certain character as well — fire attacks give you bonus damage when you roll the same dice, iron attacks are boosted by your Operative’s physical skill, blood magic generally does a lot of damage but there is a chance that you will hurt yourself too.
In all of this, there is also the question of corruption. Your magic abilities are generally the strongest and can get very strong if you develop your Operative well. However, every time you use magic, you gain some corruption. Too much corruption, without doing something about it, and you can lose your operative. (This is what happened with the Cultists, by the way — they are all magic users that fell too in love with magic.) So, your thought overall is about moderation — how do I do just enough damage to win this fight but take the smallest amount of corruption possible? (Or, if you think you are going to lose the Operative anyway, how do I go out in a blaze of glory here?)
By design, the combat is fast. Early in testing, we felt that having to “pause” and complete fights had problems, as it disrupted flow and could risk becoming tedious. The current system allows play to flow along well but still provides a really (deceptively) deep combat model — the limited turns, different schools of magic, and need to balance corruption combine for some fun decisions.
JS: Can you give a few examples of the strategic elements of the game?
IA/RF: The most direct example of this is probably the resource management part of the game. There are five resources to manage: Lore, Gold, Influence, Rumors, and Fate. You can gather more of these through adventures but also by recruiting new members to the Heretics. But you have to be careful about how you choose to expand, because the Cult and the Church are constantly hunting down Heretics and this can reduce your strategic options.
At a higher level you make a lot of strategic decisions in how you set your own overall goals in the game. You have a very limited number of actions to spend each turn so you have to balance growing the strength of your characters with putting them in risky situations to try and stop the Cult. We take a lot of inspiration in this regard from games like Arkham Horror or Pandemic where you have to make a lot of nail-biting decisions.
JS: What are some of your influences and past experiences that have helped shape Heretic Operative? Are they from other games and media, and/or from projects you have personally worked on?
IA/RF: There are a lot of them! Both of us play a huge variety of games and have been making games for well over two decades. The board game influence from games like Arkham Horror is most obvious, both on the mechanics and on some of the themes of the game. Crusader Kings II, and the Paradox series of grand strategy games more generally, have really influenced our opinions on mechanical transparency and how to use gameplay dynamics to address a lot of complex emotional themes. While Heretic Operative is pretty different from Age of Empires or System Shock, the lessons we learned making those games have really enabled us to create a game with our own individual vision from start to finish.
Thematically, there are some obvious historical parallels to the relationship between religion and technology in the real world, and even more broadly the way in which powerful new technologies, whether they are industrialization or nuclear energy, can also present new dangers. There’s also a pretty strong social theme in the game that revolves around how those without magic view those who have it — kind of like the X-Men, the Heretics are often feared by the people they are trying to save.
JS: Who is this game for? Can you give some other examples of games whose fans would also have interest in Heretic Operative?
IA/RF: Heretic Operative defies some of the traditional genre boundaries. We hope it appeals to people who enjoy the fantasy of being these renegade mages, trying to save the world while being hunted down. But we also hope it appeals to people who enjoy the fusion of board game and RPG mechanics, or who appreciate the kind of dynamic, emergent story you get that is very different in pacing and structure from a traditional linear story.
There’s not a lot directly like Heretic Operative out there to compare to, but people who like board games with a strong narrative element like Arkham Horror, Pathfinder Adventures, Talisman, or Legends of Andor should check the game out. As should anyone who likes non-traditional or experimental RPGs — games like Minit, Banner Saga, Thea, or Thronebreaker.
We would like to thank Ian and Robert for answering our questions and giving us a closer look into Heretic Operative. We wish them the best of luck and success and are looking forward to playing the game next year.