Interview: Joseph A. McCullough

Joseph A. McCullough & Angus McNicholl

Interview: Joseph A. McCullough
August 8, 2020 Joseph McCulloch & Angus McNicholl

Joseph A. McCullough is a game designer and creator of Frostgrave, Ghost Archipelago and Rangers of Shadow Deep. His games have been massive successes that blend some aspects of roleplaying with traditional wargaming. We caught up with him.

Hi, Joseph, thanks for stopping by. Could you tell us a little about yourself? What makes you tick?

Thanks for inviting me. I am a full-time writer and game designer, currently living in England, down on the Kentish coast. In fact, I can walk about one minute out of my house and overlook the English Channel. That said, I was born, educated, and first got into gaming in North Carolina. I think that combination of gaming cultures — the USA where roleplaying dominates, and the UK where wargaming is king — has had a huge impact on my work. 

Outside of work and my gaming hobby, I am a bookworm, a student of history, an enthusiastic if not overly skillful cyclist, a father of two young children, and (until recently anyway) a frequent traveller. 

You wrote Frostgrave back in 2015 and it was published by Osprey. Since then, the game has spawned a raft of supplements and now a second edition. Can you tell us about the development of Frostgrave?

About a year after I got married and moved to Britain, I got a job with Osprey Publishing — first working in the production department and then in marketing. While I was there, I got to watch and even be a part of the creation and rise of the gaming side of Osprey. One day, I was talking to Phil Smith (now head of Osprey Games), and saying that there was no miniature game on the market that really did all of the things I wanted. Phil — probably tired of listening to me rant — challenged me to write one. Although I had written a few books at that point, and a bit of roleplaying game material, I had never tried to write a wargame.

Soon thereafter, my wife and I took a holiday to the Lake District and stayed in a remote valley where there was no internet or phone signal. I would spend all morning writing, and then we would go for walks in the afternoon. I completed most of what would become Frostgrave in those two weeks — although I think most of the ideas for the game had been building my whole life. 

It was clear, pretty soon after the game’s initial release, that it was going to be a hit, and Osprey immediately asked me to do a supplement. In truth, I had so much fun doing it and it sold well enough that I did another and another. The ideas were just coming so fast at the time that I could barely keep up with them. I ended up writing eight supplements to the first edition.

You went on to write Ghost Archipelago, which uses the same system mechanics as Frostgrave. Can you talk us through the differences between the settings?

With the success of Frostgrave, Phil suggested I write a sequel that used the same rules in a different setting. At first, I wasn’t that keen. It seemed to me that players could do that easily enough themselves, just by changing the terrain and the monsters. Then one day I was thinking it over while washing dishes, and I got this idea for an strange island chain that appeared every few hundred years and then vanished again. This led to the idea of Heritors: descendents of a group of adventurers who explored the islands the last time they appeared and who found a pool which granted them superhuman abilities. The Heritors have inherited a bit of their ancestors’ power, but feel a strong urge to seek the pool themselves. 

Once I had this idea, I realised that I could change the focus of the game completely; so instead of wizards seeking treasure, it was about low-level superheroes in a fantasy, pirate-like setting, seeking a mystical pool. This allowed me to change the mechanics of how the main characters worked, and thus present something that gave players a new and different play experience. Ghost Archipelago is set in the same world as Frostgrave, and the rules are fully compatible. I never really playtested the rules together, but I know there are some people that happily use them in the same game.

I’ve gone on to write three supplements for Ghost Archipelago.

Both Frostgrave and Ghost Archipelago were published by Osprey, but you went on to self-publish your third game, Rangers of Shadow Deep. Why the change of approach?

Obviously, I have a long relationship with Osprey and it has been amazing. I am proud and happy that Osprey are continuing to publish and support the Frostgrave games. However, as I slowly transition into full-time freelance, my way of thinking about work and money have changed. I self-published Rangers mainly because I wanted a new challenge, and because I wanted an income stream that was separate from my other earnings. I think for those living the freelance life it is important not to be completely dependent on one outlet. 

Also, I just wanted complete freedom from schedules when it came to Rangers. I wanted to be able to write a supplement just because I wanted to, or because I was excited about something, and not have to worry about contracts, timings, length, and so on.

Rangers of Shadow Deep again uses the same basic system as Frostgrave and Ghost Archipelago, but it adds a new dimension as a cooperative rather than an adversarial game. Can you talk us through the ideas behind this?

Rangers really goes back to my childhood when I was first trying to figure out this whole ‘gaming’ thing. I had a Dungeons & Dragons book and I had some miniatures, but I didn’t know how to use any of it. So, I just created my own solo games. Rangers is just that idea, written with my adult understanding of game design. Once I had a solo game, I realised it would be very easy to convert it to co-operative as well. 

In my heart, I’m really a roleplayer who just loves miniatures. So with Rangers, I wanted to see how close I could push tabletop wargaming to a roleplay experience.

There is a big change in art style between Rangers and the previous games. Was this a conscious effort to do something different, or out of the necessity of self-publishing?

One of the great things about self-publishing Rangers was that I got to work with some of my best friends. I met Barrett Stanley back in high school, and we pretty quickly became fast friends. We started our own garage band and I introduced him to roleplaying. He used to draw all of our characters for us. We’ve remained in contact over the years, even when I immigrated, but I never talked to him as much as I wanted. So, when I started work on Rangers, I asked if he was interested in working with me on the project. I told him my ideas, suggested some pieces that might work, but mostly, I left the artwork to him. He really deserves all the credit for the style of the artwork. 

Since we were both ‘old school’ roleplayers, I think we both wanted to make Rangers feel something like a ‘throwback’ game. I think Barrett’s artwork has captured that perfectly.

So now you’ve come full circle, as it were: Frostgrave 2nd Edition has just been published. The rules seem very tight already; why make a second edition?

I think players and designers often look at games very differently. While you say the rules are ‘tight’, I see a game that, over the last five years, has picked up five pages of errata! More than that though, I have just discovered numerous little tweaks and changes over the years that I could make to improve the game. Frostgrave was my first game, and I was just learning the craft of game design at the time. Now, I know so much more about game design in general and this system in particular. I really wanted the chance to make the game even better, and thankfully Osprey agreed. All of that said, it really is a lot of little tweaks, tightenings, and small changes. It is still fundamentally the same game, and current players will find a lot more that is familiar than things that have changed.

How did you find self-publishing in comparison to working with an established publisher?

They are very different experiences, and I certainly wouldn’t say one is better than the other. With a traditional publisher, like Osprey, you obviously have a huge team supporting your game: editors, artists, designers, production people, a marketing team — each a specialist at their own job. With self-publishing, you either have to do all of these things yourself or hire someone to do them for you. When working on Frostgrave, I basically just get to be a writer/game designer, which is by far my favourite part. With Rangers, I also have to be the project manager overseeing the whole process, then I have to be my own marketing department as well.

On the flip side, with Rangers I get total creative freedom. I can create whatever I want, whenever I want. I can create supplements that are too small to be worth someone like Osprey dealing with. I can stop a project in the middle, follow some other whim, and then return to the first whenever I want.

In truth, I think it is healthy for modern writers, whatever their genre, to pursue both avenues of publication.

Do you play games by other designers?

When I’m working on a game, I try to avoid games that might have similar ideas or mechanics; that way I’m sure I’m not drawing too heavily from anyone else’s work. It also helps to separate my job from my hobby. So, for example, lately I have been enjoying Battletech: Alpha Strike as it is both thematically and mechanically far removed from anything I’m working on. 

The three games you’ve published have all been fantasy-based. Is that your area of interest or would you consider adapting your rules set for sci-fi adventures?

Throughout my life, I have done a lot more fantasy gaming than anything else; though, perhaps strangely, I actually read a lot more science fiction than I do fantasy. So, not only have I considered adapting the rules for science fiction, but I’m actually working on them right now. Stargrave is due to be released by Osprey Publishing in the later half of 2021! The game draws upon both Frostgrave and Ghost Archipelago for mechanics, merging and recombining them in different ways, and introducing some new tricks as well. Like all of my games, it’ll have a setting; but a setting with a lot of wiggle-room for players to interpret the exact look and feel to suit their own games.

What are your plans for the future of your games?

Honestly, I just want to keep pushing my abilities as a game designer and playing with what is possible within the tabletop hobby. I want to keep experimenting. I try not to think long-term about my games, because creativity can’t be planned. If you let it, it will always take you in directions you never expected — and often that’s where the best ideas lie. 

We understand that you also write and self-publish Spellcaster magazine, which focuses on the world of Frostgrave. Does it take up a lot of your creative time?

Spellcaster was actually my first foray into self-publishing. Basically, I just had a lot of little ideas for Frostgrave that didn’t fit well into the official supplements. This includes things that don’t really fit into the world, like rules for gunpowder or making deals with criminal gangs; or things that don’t fit into the normal way of playing the game, like solo scenarios using just one figure, or where you play the monsters. Spellcaster gave me a chance to write a lot of these little ideas down and present them in an attractive format for any Frostgrave fans that might be interested. Spellcaster probably takes up more time than it is actually worth, in terms of monetary compensation for my work, but it is fun!

I’ve probably written about 80% of the content for Spellcaster magazine. The rest is written by friends who are intimately connected with the game, like Phil Smith and Brent Sinclair (who runs all of the games at Adepticon). Sometimes they show me something and I ask if I can use it. I did also commission one short story, by Matthew Ward, as a follow up to one of the Frostgrave novels he wrote — just because I really like his writing.

Do you have any advice for us game design novices who dream of getting their game published?

The biggest thing is to write. It’s not good enough having an idea in your head. You can’t show that to anyone, be it players, playtesters, or publishers. It’s got to be down in writing. Also, the writing is generally the hardest part for most people, so it is best to try and turn it into a habit. Even if you only write 200 words a day, in six months you’ll have a book about the length of Frostgrave. Like everything else, writing takes a lot of practice, so the sooner you start working at it, the better you will get.

What are you reading at the moment?

I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction. My fiction reading tends to be science fiction, often military. I’m a big fan of Jack Campbell, especially his Lost Fleet series. I also read every Gaunt’s Ghosts book that Dan Abnett writes. I also like reading historical adventure, though usually older Victorian titles. I recently finished and enjoyed The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason. I enjoy almost anything by Robert Louis Stevenson or Rafael Sabatini. 

My non-fiction reading is more diverse. Some things that I’ve read lately that I’ve really enjoyed are Stephen Fry’s two books on Greek myth: Mythos and Heroes; Rebel Yell, the biography of Stonewall Jackson by S. C. Gwynne; Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which is kind of a ‘big thinking’ book; and Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, which is about the history of, and philosophy behind, the Patagonia outdoor clothing company. 

Do you play video games?

I am probably the last of the generation that thinks of video games as something you play standing up in an arcade! While I have played a few here and there at home, I’ve never really gotten into it. 

We really appreciate you taking the time to chat, and wish you all the best with Stargrave and your other projects!

Many thanks!