Joe McCullough, creator of Frostgrave, Stargrave and Rangers of Shadow Deep, joins Diagonal Move to discuss the relative merits of spells vs grenade launchers and other miniatures-based wargaming topics.
DM: Hi Joseph, thank you for joining us today. Please can you tell us a little about yourself and how you became a games designer?
Thanks for the invite! Looking back, two important things happened when I was in my early teens. First, I became a ‘gamer’. This started when I found a copy of Dungeons & Dragons at a yard sale, and quickly expanded to include other RPGs and miniature games. At the same time, I started to develop a love of writing. For a long time, I thought I wanted to be a fiction writer. I spent most of my university and young adult life writing short stories, but never really getting anywhere. It wasn’t until after I emigrated to Britain, took a job at Osprey Publishing, and helped in the development of Osprey Games that it occurred to me to try writing a game. Even then, it began as a fun distraction. Well, my first attempt at game writing was Frostgrave, and its success convinced me that maybe I had found my calling.
DM: You are best known for miniatures-based skirmish games including Frostgrave, Rangers of Shadow Deep and Stargrave. How do miniatures based war games differ from sci-fi and fantasy themed board wargames that use miniatures, for example Battle Lore?
Boardgames are limited, by their very nature. They are limited by the board and the pieces that come in the box. Now, this allows for much tighter rules sets, because everything is governed by squares, or hexes, and the designer knows exactly what the players will be using when they play. Wargames are open. Every player is likely to use different miniatures and/or terrain. This allows players to build unique tables and construct unique scenarios, giving miniature wargames infinite possibility. Of course, it also creates new challenges for the designer who must create rules that can work with a degree of uncertainty with what terrain and pieces will be on the table.
DM: What does Frostgrave do differently from other miniatures-based games and how did it build on the games that inspired you to be a designer?
I think Frostgrave did three things that were rare in wargames at the time. First, it took a narrative-first approach to miniature gaming, meaning that the story you tell by the act of playing is more important than whether a player wins or loses. In fact, in a campaign, there are no specific victory conditions to a game. Players are left to decide for themselves whether the outcome of a game was good or bad. Secondly, Frostgrave moved away from the traditional ‘warrior focus’ of wargames, put wizards front and centre of the game, and gave them a huge list of spells to choose from. This not only brought huge variety to the game, since there are 80 spells and they all do different things, but it gave players meaningful choices to make each turn. Finally, at every point in the game, I thought about how I could speed things up and keep players engaged. So, for example, combat is an opposed d20 roll, which determines both who won the fight and how much damage is done. So, with one roll, either figure, or both, could end up dead. Also, each player only activates a few figures at a time, so the game moves very fast with a lot of back and forth. A player never has to wait more than a minute or two before rolling some dice or moving some figures.
DM: When designing a system like Frostgrave with multiple character attributes, equipable items and spells, how do you keep track of the ‘balance’ of the game and ensure that one unit or spell combination doesn’t overpower others?
Basically, I write down all the cool stuff I can think of and sort it out later! Seriously though, I kind of set a ‘power level’ in my mind, and I make sure when I write that everything in the game is floating around that level. So, all the spells should be about ‘X level good’. Now, obviously it is hard to compare an attack spell to a spell that turns a figure invisible to a spell that creates a wall, but it’s a good baseline to approach the writing. I find, if I try and err on the side of caution when creating anything new, it’s much easier to go back later during playtesting and make it slightly more powerful, than it is to go back and make it slightly less powerful.
In the end though, it’s not possible to keep everything completely balanced. As the number of possibly combinations reaches the infinite, there are going to be possibilities or interactions that the designer never even conceived. But that’s what makes wargaming great. It’s part of that infinite possibility. The wargamers that are attracted to my style of games are the ones that are willing to trade the occasional blip that they might have to legislate themselves for that huge level of possibility.
DM: Stargrave, the successor to Frostgrave was released earlier this year? Can you tell us about the new system and how does it differs from Frostgrave?
The biggest single change is that now everyone is carrying a gun! I know that’s a bit flippant, but seriously, it hugely changes the feel of the game and the tactics employed. So really, creating Stargrave was about taking that fundamental change and then rebuilding the rest of the system around it. Spells that are great in Frostgrave, such as Elemental Ball, wouldn’t be that great in Stargrave where you can get the same basic effect from a grenade launcher. So, instead of spells you have a captain and first-mate who have ‘powers’ which can be anything from biological enhancements, cybernetics, or well-honed skills to mystical arts, psionic powers, or just plain luck. So you can build a space-wizard if you want, but you can just as easily have a cybernetic super-soldier, a slippery rogue, or a robotics master. In fact, you could have a cyborg and a rogue, because unlike Frostgrave, your two characters, your captain and first-mate, can have completely different power-sets, which gives a crew access to a host of different tactics they can employ during a game.
DM: Can you tell us more about Rangers of Shadow Deep? How does it compare to your other games?
For Rangers of Shadow Deep I took some of the core mechanics from Frostgrave and then rebuilt the game from the ground-up to be a solo or co-operative experience. It is my attempt to push traditional tabletop wargaming as far as I could in the direction of classic role-playing. In Rangers you build a character, much as you would in an RPG. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a ranger, it can be a warrior, wizard, thief, whatever – ranger is just your job title. Then you surround him with some trusted companions and go out on missions assigned by your king. While the game still has a heavy combat element, it also brings in other aspects of adventuring, such as exploration and investigation. In one mission, you team up with a small group of soldiers to investigate a farm that has been attacked. Unfortunately, one of your team is a werewolf! You just need to figure out which one. In another you are exploring the ruins of an ancient abbey, searching for an important relic. You have to choose which rooms you explore in what order, collecting clues to the relic’s location.
So, while the game is still very much a tabletop wargame, it has a lot of the feel of an RPG, especially if you are playing it cooperatively with other players.
DM: What do you attribute the popularity of miniatures-based gaming and the success of your games to? Is it the world building, the element of role play, the chaotic fun of rolling handfuls of dice?
I think most people get into miniature wargaming because, frankly, they love miniatures. There is just something pleasing about recreating a fantasy or science-fiction world in miniature that really appeals to a lot of people. In many ways, the rules are just an excuse to fuel the collecting, building, and painting part of the hobby. I think the freedom inherent in my rules systems – the encouragement to use any figures you want no matter the producer, the unimportance attached to species, so that any figure can be an elf, dwarf, orc, etc., and even the unimportance of scale – gives people the excuse to buy and work on the miniatures they’ve always wanted to get but never had a specific need for. The same thing goes with terrain. The games are so open-ended that you can really craft any terrain you want for them – or if you don’t like working on terrain – you can just use a bunch of blocks or rocks instead.
Beyond that, I think a large group of gamers find my rules enjoyable because there is less emphasis on winning and losing. While you still approach the game with strategies, goals, and hopes, there is less tension to them than a lot of games, and you know you are likely to have a good time even if the dice go against you!
DM: The ‘hobby’ side of miniatures gaming – building and painting the miniatures – is hugely popular and even draws in people who collect and paint models without ever playing the games. How much input as the game’s designer do you have into the look and feel of the mini’s themselves?
In my case, the answer is ‘as much as I want’. Osprey Games and North Star include me in all the discussions about the miniatures. That said, I honestly don’t think this is one of my strengths, so for the most part, I stay out of the way and let other people do the things that they are really good at!
DM: The initial and on-going costs – the vast array of expansions, multiple factions, new miniatures and rulebook editions on a regular release cycle – can be seen as both a barrier to entry for many players new to mini’s games and restrictive to regular players looking to try a new system. How do you feel about this and can you suggest any ways players can reduce these?
While I know some people see the hobby this way, I honestly don’t think it is true. I mean, it is for certain games from certain companies, but it isn’t true of the hobby as a whole. For example, if you want to play Frostgrave, all you need is the basic rulebook and a single box of plastic figures. This will give you enough figures for two people to field full Frostgrave forces. For terrain, you can use whatever you have around the house – books, boxes, blocks, cans, rocks from the garden. Believe me, you can have some great games, some great adventures, doing just that. I have! Heck, for Rangers of Shadow Deep, there are people who don’t even use terrain, they just draw out the table on a big white board. That works too!
Later on, as you get into the game you can expand. You can get expansions that give you new scenarios and optional rules, but none are necessary. You can buy a few monsters to increase the complications in your game, or a new miniature to represent your more powerful wizard. You can hand-make some terrain out of old cereal boxes. One of the great aspects of the hobby is that you really can start cheap and build everything up over time. There is huge satisfaction to be gained by this slow-build-up approach.
And these ideas aren’t peculiar to my games. There are lots of minis-games out there that require only a small initial start-up. Just a book and a few figures. So never feel like you need to drop £200 – £300 at one go to get into the hobby, it’s just not true.
DM: If someone wanted to start their miniatures gaming hobby with one of your games, which do you suggest as an entry point and why?
If you are looking for a competitive game where you battle it out with your friends, I would suggest Frostgrave. The rules are simple and can be learned quickly, and you only need 10 figures or so to start playing. A lot of people just scavenge miniatures from board games they own but don’t play! As I said, you can use anything for terrain.
Since Frostgrave has so many different spell possibilities it can be quiet a wild and unpredictable game that leads to a lot of cinematic moments and a lot of reasons to laugh with your friends.
If you are a solo player or are more attracted to the idea of playing a miniatures game co-operatively, I’d go with Rangers of Shadow Deep. That’s exactly why I created it. While you will need a few more minis for it to represent the bad guys, you can always get some cheap paper standees or just use proxies as you work on your collection.
DM: Can you tell us anything about what you are working on now?
At the moment, I’m working on a small game called Deathship One. The idea is that a squad of soldiers has been pulled out of space and time and dumped in an alien death trap. You can use soldiers from any time period, past, present or future. It’s a solo or cooperative game, and in truth, you aren’t supposed to win. It’s a death trap after all. The fun is seeing how far your squad can make it before they are overwhelmed. The whole game consists of playing through five rooms. In the unlikely event you make it through, you get to go home. I’m keeping the rules light and simple as I want the game to move very fast.
The plan is that it will be released in the next volume of Blaster (#4) a miniature wargaming anthology series I am a part of, that is irregularly released on DriveThruRPG.
DM: Do you have any advice for designers looking to create a miniatures-based game?
Develop a writing habit. It doesn’t matter how many ideas you have, or how great they are, unless you get them down on paper. Once you have a manuscript, making changes to rules is easy, but writing a complete rulebook, that’s hard.
You can read more about Joe on his blog: The Renaissance Troll.
Stargrave Quarantine 37 is released on Sept 16th 2021. Find out more here.
Download versions of Joe’s games including Frostgrave, Stargrave, Rangers of Shadow Deep and more can be found at DriveThruRPG (affiliate link).