Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Interview with “Telepath Tactics ” Creator Craig Stern

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 19, 2012

Telepath-TacticsIt doesn’t feel like all that long ago that I interviewed Craig about Telepath RPG: Servants of God.  But I guess it was actually two years ago. Time flies.

This time, I wanted to chat with him about his “Strategy RPG” in development, Telepath Tactics. This game is approaching its final week on Kickstarter. While I do have some reservations about recommending Kickstarter projects to readers, simply because I know that some of these crowdfunded projects will fail, and I don’t want to be the guy who suggested people throw away money. I do enough of that on the stock market that I don’t like giving suggestions to people. 🙂

However, Craig is another one of those “known quantities.” With several games to his credit, Craig’s producing this game one way or another – but through Kickstarter funding, he hopes to have much higher production values at the end of this journey. So this won’t be the first or last time I’ll break my own guidelines, and suggest that people please take a look at this project and see if it’s worth backing. Even now that indie RPGs are no longer an endangered species, Telepath Tactics stands out as a pretty unique offering.

You can visit the Telepath Tactics Kickstarter page here.

Without any further ado, here’s my conversation with Craig:


Rampant Coyote: Now, you call it a strategy RPG, as opposed to a tactics game. So is this going to be more like Telepath Psy Arena or more like Telepath RPG? And what will be the biggest difference between Telepath Tactics and those two previous games?

Craig: “Strategy RPG” is just the most commonly used name for this subgenre: in reality, of course, these are all tactics games. I’ve shied away from using the term “tactical RPG” in part because, much like “with RPG elements” before it, “tactical” has begun to morph into a throwaway term that developers use to market every single game they make, no matter what genre it belongs in and no matter how shallow and facile its combat mechanics are. “Strategy RPG” still stands for a very specific thing, and I want to make sure people understand what kind of game Telepath Tactics is.

Telepath Tactics shares some commonalities with previous Telepath games, but it’s much more streamlined and focused in structure. Telepath RPG: Servants of God featured exploration and nonlinear progression; Telepath Psy Arena 2 revolved around a tournament league structure with randomly generated training battles. Both of these games had a very flexible character advancement system where the player could spend gold to improve any character in any area.

Unlike its predecessors, Telepath Tactics is single-mindedly focused on exactly two things: combat and narrative. To that end, it progresses through a linear story with an ensemble cast; battles and cut scenes occur in a set order. This has allowed me to focus on two of the things I do best and make sure that I really, really nail them.

Rampant Coyote: How long have you been working on Telepath Tactics already? What’s done, and what’s left to do?

Craig: I’ve been working on Telepath Tactics off and on for about two years, and much more regularly since February (when Telepath RPG: Servants of God was finally released).

tt01The game is still in alpha, but a lot has been done. The game has fully functional local multiplayer with three game types and a load of customization options; the start of the single player campaign; global lighting; weather effects; walking animations; five tilesets; a dialog system complete with scripting; a music / sound effects engine; swimming; elevation effects; the ability to push, pull and throw characters off of cliffs and into water or lava; 22 character classes; numerous unique items; and (last I counted) just shy of 100 unique character attacks and abilities. The AI is coming along well too, with the majority of major routines in place.

Oh, and mod support: that’s already in-game and working beautifully, complete with a slick, functioning map editor.

There are only a few core things left to code: asynchronous online multiplayer, point lighting, and improvements to the enemy AI being the big three. (I won’t be satisfied until the AI gives players nightmares on its hardest setting!) Most of what remains, frankly, is content: attack animations, sound effects, music, character portraits, individualized attack icons and other GUI assets, and the remainder of the single player campaign.

Rampant Coyote:  What lessons have you learned in your previous games that you are applying to this one?

There are so many; perhaps the biggest has been the importance of modularity. A modular approach to developing the game’s systems has made it very easy for me to create new content, craft a brutal enemy AI that plays by the same rules as the player, and–of course–modularity has allowed me to offer mod support.

I’ve also learned the importance of focus. I’m just one guy; I can only do quality work if I can avoid spreading myself too thin. To that end, I’m contracting out most of the work of asset creation and concentrating on providing a high quality, linear experience. Attempting a nonlinear wRPG at the same time as I break ground on a brand new, complex tactics engine is just asking for problems. Luckily, thanks to that whole modularity thing, I’ll be able to keep extending the Telepath Tactics engine going forward, allowing me to branch out in interesting and ever-more-ambitious directions.

Rampant Coyote: You’ve made several games in the past without the benefit of Kickstarter. So why did you go for Kickstarter this time around?

Craig: Assets are the majority of what remains to be added to the game, and I want those assets to be high quality assets. Because I am neither a talented graphic artist nor independently wealthy, I need some outside means of paying the substantial costs of contracting artists to create these; Kickstarter just happens to be the best option around for making that happen.

Rampant Coyote: For those who have played tactics games in the past – your own games, or Band of Bugs or the like on the PC, or games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea on consoles and handhelds – what would really make them stand up and take notice of Telepath Tactics? While the PC isn’t exactly overwhelmed with strategy RPGs these days, what features really set Telepath Tactics apart?

Craig: First, as you point out, games like this are very rare on PC. That’s reason enough to support the game all on its own, I think!

Beyond that, though, Telepath Tactics stands alone in terms of features. It has extensive mod support with support for custom single player campaigns, which means that the game could theoretically have a limitless supply of new content flooding in for years to come. As far as I’m concerned, this will be a game to keep on your hard drive until the day you die.

tt02The combat engine itself, in turn, is what happens if you take all that advice (1, 2, 3) I’ve been writing up on SinisterDesign.net over the past year and a half and actually put it into practice. Telepath Tactics is highly deterministic, with straightforward rules that combine in interesting ways to create a huge possibility space. To restate that in plain English: attacks do not have a chance to “miss,” damage is 100% predictable, and there are a lot of easy-to-grasp mechanics that make things interesting: elevation effects; environmental hazards; the ability to push, pull and throw characters; destructible and dynamic scenery; counterattacks; status effects; elemental weaknesses and resistances; character energy that regenerates when resting; up to eight attacks per character; AOE attacks; variable range attacks; movement abilities; backstab bonuses; sidestab bonuses; the ability to create bridges and barricades; explosive satchels that you can place and detonate; random item drops; and so on.

On top of all that, Telepath Tactics has local multiplayer. I’ve actually thrown parties where my friends come over and we play matches, and I can attest that it’s a lot of fun.

Rampant Coyote: So – how about a teaser about the storyline? What’s the core story about? And how will the story be presented in this game?

Craig: The story is presented mostly through cut scenes and character dialog, with occasional exposition. (This stuff is also available to modders, by the way. Script your own cut scenes ftw!)

Without wading too far into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Telepath Tactics features a story of political backstabbing and high intrigue. Here’s a snippet of background:

Shadowlings, disembodied creatures from the nether reaches of the earth, were the first to discover the secrets of vibra mining. The secret to powering steam tech, vibra turned out to be big business–and no place had it in greater concentrations than the Dundar Archipelago.

So when Lon Schmendrick ran for a seat in the Dundar imperial senate, the Vibra Mining Company was more than happy to foot the cost of his campaign. He won, he served his term, and he retired to govern several islands as magistrate. He was set; when the Vibra Mining Company came calling, all he had to do was give them their mining grant. It’s what a smarter man would have done. But then, Lon was never the brightest candle in the candelabrum…

Rampant Coyote: Why did you change from the overhead view to the new of past games to this perspective (and style)?

Craig: The overhead perspective was the number one complaint I received about past games, both from players and in reviews. I remember the first time any of my games was mentioned on Rock Paper Shotgun. It was a Kieron Gillen post about Telepath Psy Arena 2. He made a joke about the birds’ eye view of the camera, quoted from the press release, and called it a day.

Visuals have never been the thing I cared about most in games, but it’s become obvious to me over the years that my work will never be taken seriously until I use visuals pretty enough that most people can ignore them and actually give the game itself a real shot. Getting rid of the much hated top-down camera was step one; step two was adopting a perspective that RPG players already know and love, the side-on oblique perspective.

Rampant Coyote: For the modding community (or those who just like to make sure they have zillions of hours of gameplay from their game courtesy of third-party content) – what sort of tools will be provided to people wanting to add their own content to the game?

Craig: There is already a functional and user-friendly map editor with support for custom tilesets, character classes and destructible objects. I’d eventually like to create tools for editing the various other aspects of the game as well (character classes, items, dialog, etc.)–but for now, all of that stuff is accessible and in clearly labeled, easy-to-edit XML files that you can tinker with in any text editor of your choice. Given how easy it is to read and edit these things, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if the community stepped in and created editing tools of its own!

Once again – Here’s the Kickstarter if you’d like to be involved. There’s only a few days left to take it over the top, so check it out today!

And thanks, Craig, for the update and a chance to talk indie RPGs with you again!

Filed Under: Interviews - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • lempar said,

    “What lessons have you learned in your previous games that you are applying to this one?”

    What he didnt get is an important lesson of “get off Adobe Air !”.

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