Joseph McCullough The Renaissance Troll

Q&A with Joseph McCullough

It’s not every day that we get to see game designer Joseph McCullough chime in on Frostgrave and all things tabletop gaming, so let’s do this, with relish.

Q:  FROSTGRAVE is an incredible tabletop gaming experience. What can you share with us about the early stages of this game’s development?

JM: I get a little embarrassed when I talk about developing Frostgrave, because I think people expect me to say that I spent years agonizing over the rules, and trying hundreds of iterations before I got it right. In truth, most of the game was written during a two-week holiday in the Lake District. I would write all morning and then my wife and I would go for long walks in the mountains. In fact, I think I had subconsciously been writing the game for years, filing away bits and pieces I had collected over a lifetime of gaming. Obviously, after I finished writing it, there was playtesting and changes were made, but most of them were pretty small adjustments.

Q:  The Lake District sounds lovely.  Where is that exactly, and what is it like there?

JM:  The Lake District is England’s largest National Park. It’s basically a huge area of lakes and mountains. It’s stunningly beautiful and almost all of it is traversable on foot, so it is the place to go for hikers. Also, unlike National Parks in the US, there are lots of towns, villages, and hamlets in it, so you are never that far from a hot cup of tea and a scone!

Q:  GHOST ARCHIPELAGO is coming soon. What can you share with us about this game, and its Heritors?

JM: I can tell you that I’m sweating over this one. When Frostgrave came out there was no expectation, now the pressure is on! Hopefully though, people will enjoy it. It is basically a spin-off from Frostgrave. It is set in the same world, but leaves the Frozen City behind to investigate a mysterious chain of islands that reappears for a few years every couple of centuries or so. The islands are covered in the ruins of numerous civilizations and filled with all kinds of monsters, and of course, treasure. The main treasure though, is the Crystal Pool. The last time the Archipelago appeared a group of adventurers found the pool, drank from its waters, and gained preternatural powers. They returned to the mainland and became legends. Their children inherited some of their powers, as did their grandchildren, and so on. However, with each generation, the powers got a little less, and the cost of using them, a pain known as ‘blood burn’ increased. Today, the descendants of those adventurers are called ‘Heritors’. They are still mighty champions, but not quite the untouchable legends their ancestors were. The Heritors are the main protagonists of the game as they lead their hand-picked crews into the archipelago on a hunt for the Crystal Pool and any other loot they might come across on the way!  Ghost Archipelago uses the same core rules as Frostgrave, but with a new integrated system for Heritors.

Q:  How would you describe the Crystal Pool, in terms of what it looks like, how large it is and such?

JM:  I wouldn’t describe it at all. In fact, I don’t. One of the key aspects of the ‘Frostgrave Universe’ for me is that there is plenty of mystery, and plenty of blank space that players can fill in for themselves. I think miniature wargames should promote creativity, but to do so, players have to have space in which to work. If everything is mapped out, described, and defined, it takes a lot of the fun out of it!

Q:  “Blood burn” sounds very interesting.  What are the symptoms and telltale signs of that affliction?

JM: Well, the name is a pretty accurate description. Basically, the Heritors start to feel like their blood is on fire, and this gets worse they more they try to use their abilities in a short time. Eventually, they won’t be able to take the pain and thus won’t be able to use the powers. Or, potentially, they’ll push their body until the pain actually kills them.

Q:  When you did you begin tabletop gaming and which tabletop games have been some of your favorites?

JM: When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I had a load of cheap plastic soldiers. Little ones, about 1/72 scale. I used to draw maps on paper filled with deathtraps and pits of lava and the like. I would march my little soldiers through the maps, rolling dice at each of the traps to see who fell in the pit or got hit by spears or whatever. It was sort of solo miniature gaming at its most basic. Not too long after I found Dungeons and Dragons which set me off on a long career as a role-player. Role-playing has probably been my biggest influence as a game designer with D&D, MERP, GURPS, Call of Cthulhu and Deadlands being my favourites.

Most of my early board gaming kind of grew out of that. I am huge fan of Silent Death and the original Robo Rally. I got very into Magic: The Gathering when it first came out. All of the old Cheap Ass Games, were great. I loved the way the combined good mechanics with absurdist themes.

Q:  You mentioned Silent Death and Robo Rally.  What is it about those two tabletop games that really appeals to you?

JM: Silent Death has one of the best combat mechanism I’ve ever come across. Basically, every attack is made using three dice. The total of the three dice determines if you hit, while one of those dice, or a combination of those dice determines how much damage you do, based on the weapon type you are using. Basically, one die throw accomplishes a lot. Robo Rally fascinates me. At its most basic level it purely a game of logical thinking, and yet, somehow, it always degenerates into complete chaos, usually very quickly. I generally laugh a lot playing!

Q:  How did you get your start with game design?

JM: I did a little writing for RPGs years ago, being the co-author on The Grey Mountains for MERP and the Rise, Alabama! Supplement for Savage Worlds. After those, I went away from games, attempting to make my way as a writer of straight fiction and non-fiction. I only came back to designing games because Phil Smith, the Games Manager at Osprey, challenged me to write a miniatures game after listening to me that nothing on the market was quite what I was looking for.

Q:  What’s it like working together with Phil Smith?

JM:  Fantastic. Phil and I worked together a long time before we had a writer / editor relationship. Generally he’s a very hands-off editor, who likes to let writers/designers do what they do, and only steps in if he sees a real problem. That said, he’s saved me from making numerous little mistakes. I wouldn’t want anyone else overseeing Frostgave.

Q:  Beyond FROSTGRAVE and GHOST ARCHIPELAGO, what can you tell us about some of your other irons in the fire?

JM:  Well, I have just released a fantasy, fiction anthology called Victory’s Knife, which is available on Kindle and as a print-on-demand book. It contains seventeen stories and shows off where my head was in fantasy before I wrote Frostgrave. Beyond that, I’ve got a couple of smaller wargaming projects I am working on. Probably things I will self-publish. I think it is important to mix up the big stuff with the little things, both for a bit of variety and to get that ‘finished something’ feeling more often. If you want to keep up with what I’m up to, check out my blog.

Q:  Victory’s Knife is a superb title.  How many stories are in that anthology?

JM:  Thanks, I have been holding onto that title for a long time, knowing I would want to use it for a collection of some of my stories. The book has 17 stories, some of which are very short, a few are closer to novellas.

Q:  What advice could you give to up-and-coming game designers?

JM: Be aware of the current trends in gaming – most especially speed of play and constant player interaction and involvement. The majority of people play games for the experience, not the cerebral challenge. That said, forget all other considerations, and just write a game that you love and want to play. It won’t ensure success, nothing does, but it will increase your chances, and, no matter what comes, you can at least enjoy and be proud of what you have created.

Q:  With so many new board games on the market these days, which have you enjoyed most?

JM: I am biased, of course, towards Osprey Games, but I think my favorite game of the last year has to be Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. This game is so conceptually simple. It’s almost the game you would make up with your siblings in the back of the car on a long trip, but it is so, so, good. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a game that generates as much tension!

Q:  Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space sounds amazing.  What’s an example of the tension that that board game creates for its players?

JM: It’s a hidden movement, hidden roll game. So half the game is figure out whose and alien and the other half is figuring out where they are. All the aliens are working together to eat humans. The Humans just want to get to the escape pods. In one memorable game, I remember two humans were both running for the same escape pod, which could only hold one. When one of the humans figured this out, he used his one shot to shoot the other human!

Q:  Five dinner guests.  Which five game designers would you invite to a dinner party?

JM: I’m lucky enough to have met most of my ‘wargaming heroes’, so I’ll exclude them. Steve Jackson – probably the first ‘game designer’ I knew by name, and GURPS, Car Wars, and Ogre played such a big part in my early gaming. Gary Gygax – they don’t come much bigger. I’ve read a bit about the man, but he still remains elusive to me.  James Ernest – I love Cheap Ass games, and I love the approach he took when he launched the company. Richard Garfield – come on, Magic and Robo Rally!  Jordan Weisman – not only did the guy develop Battletech, but he founded WizKids, and has gone on to work on all different aspects of gaming. I love how he has jumped around the industry.

Q:  What hasn’t really happened yet, in game design, that you would love to see happen next?

JM: If I could answer that, I probably would keep it to myself and would be working on it in secret as we speak! Personally, I would like to see more board games take a page from rpgs and tabletop Wargaming, and bring an element of personal creativity into them. More games that allow players to create their own characters and tell their own stories. It’s harder in traditional board game as the board provides a limit, but I’m sure it can be done.

Q:  That’s very interesting.  Which existing board games do you feel are best-suited for this sort of thing already?

JM: Well, the obvious answer is the dungeon delver games like Descent that owe a lot of their existence to D&D. However, in that case, you should probably just play D&D instead. To go back to Robo Rally – why not make an expansion where people can build their own Robots, where their different abilities helps explain their backstory. Maybe they were from a defective line that failed the child safety checks, which is why they catch fire on certain die rolls. Or something of that nature.

Q:  When the Joseph McCullough biopic gets greenlit by a major motion picture studio, who will portray you, and what will the film be called?

JM:  People used to say I looked like Fred Savage. I suppose he would be cheaper to get than most! I think the film would be called ‘Wander On’ as I have a bit of wanderlust that has led me to live in two different countries, and move from job to job (even within the same company) with a high degree of regularity!

Q:  Fred Savage just might be available for that.  Which two countries have you lived in?

JM:  I was born in North Carolina, then lived for a while in Washington, D.C.  In my late twenties I decided to do a Master’s Degree in Bangor, North Wales, in the United Kingdom. I didn’t finish the course, but I met a wonderful young woman from Kent who became my wife. Soon after we moved to Oxford, England where I’ve been living for ten years or so.

Q:  Just curious, do you have dual citizenship?  If so, what are the pros and cons of that?

JM:  I do. I received my UK Citizenship about 4 years ago. The biggest pro is knowing that I have the same citizenship as my wife. It would be unlikely to ever be an issue, but it is nice not to have to worry about it. On the downside, I have to pay taxes in both countries…sort of. The US only taxes foreign earned income once you get over something like $100,000 in a year, so it’s not something I have ever had to worry about, but it does mean I have to fill out tax returns in both countries.

Q:  What are you most looking forward to in 2017, in gaming or otherwise?

JM: Well, the release of Ghost Archipelago is going to be a nervous but exciting time. I’ve got some pretty big personal changes coming as well, but as nothing is sure yet, I’d rather not talk about it too much. I’m sure I’ll be talking about it on my blog as things firm up. I do hope it means that I will have more time to devote to writing and game design. There is also a big project coming from the board game side of Osprey Games which is going to be hugely exciting. I won’t be directly involved, but it’s a great game and its going to get a great package. Sorry, I can’t be more specific, but keep an eye out.


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