Masters Of The Pit – Frostgrave’s Joe McCullough

I originally conducted this interview with Frostgrave mastermind Joseph McCullough last year. We’d planned to release a a print copy fanzine to accompany the Dungeonpunx podcast. For one reason or another progress on that project slowed from a tectonic crawl to almost  sedentary in a matter of months. I recently recovered this chat with Joe whilst clearing out some old files. And whilst some of the information is somewhat out of date, I think it’s still a nice window into Joe’s personal background and the machinations of his creative process. I hope that this will be the first of a series of interviews with key creative figures in the table top games industry. Many thanks to Joe for his participation with the interview and check out his newest project The Oathmark coming soon from Osprey/Northstar Military!

Lets start at the beginning. You are originally from Greensboro, North Carolina. I am always curious about how ones childhood home and surrounding environment impacts a person’s imagination. What was it like growing up there?

I like to tell people that Greensboro is a beautiful place to live, but there is little reason to visit. Although it is a large city by British standards, it is so spread out that it rarely feels crowded. As the name implies, it is a very green city with lots of trees, lots of tall oaks. One of the city’s most notable features, and certainly one that had a large impact on me growing up, is that it was the site of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse during the Revolutionary War. It is an intensely interesting tactical battle, and I’m sure that was a major source of my lifelong interest in Military History. The city is also where Gen. Johnson surrendered his army at the end of the Civil War.

Also important, the city always a had a small, but very active science-fiction, fantasy, and gaming community based around the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. As a young teen, I went to their little gaming convention, Hexicon, every year, even though I was often the youngest person there.

Everyones got an anecdote about how they discovered their appetites for fantasy and gaming. What’s your gaming background, did you get into it at school or through a friend or an older sibling? Can you remember the first movie or book that flipped your switch?

My parents were big sci-fi/fantasy fans. I think my father read The Lord of the Rings to me, for the first time, when I was about ten. They took me to see Return of the Jedi in the theatre even though I was only seven or eight – and scared to death of the Rancor! I think my first contact with gaming, was picking up a copy of Dragon Magazine in a bookstore where my mother worked. I didn’t know what Dungeons & Dragons was, and didn’t really understand most of what was going on in that magazine, but somehow I knew it was for me! So, really, I think fantasy and science-fiction have always been a part of my life.

I like to get into the culture that surrounds gaming and the influence it has on our creative endeavours. What were you like at school? Were you metal head a punk a loner?

No, I was a good kid for the most part. I talked a bit too much in class, but teachers generally liked me, so I got away with it. In high school, I dressed pretty goth, but actually, the concept of ‘goth’ didn’t exist at that time, so I was just a bit odd for wearing all black and a trench coat. I certain wasn’t ‘cool’, and had my only little group of ‘outsider’ friends, but I was popular enough that I could happily interact with most of my peers.

Frostgrave has a very distinct look and back story. The cataclysm wrought by the tinkering of wizards with forces beyond their control, could be an analogy for Chernobyl, the A bomb etc. What inspired the aesthetic and narrative development of Frostgrave?

I’ve had a lifetime love affair with ruins. I don’t know why, or where it came from. I have just always found ruins to be much more evocative, more ‘romantic’ in the old sense, than anything else. Since I moved to Britain, I have been constantly dragging my wife off to some kicked over castle or broken down manor house. Beyond that – the setting just grows out of the needs of the game. I needed somewhere that a lot of wizards would gather – so it had to be something that contained magical secrets – what better than an ancient wizard city?

 I read an interview where you stated that no one was manufacturing the type of fantasy game YOU wanted to play so you designed Frostgrave. Was it always your intention to bring it to market or did it start out as something fun between mates…

It was always written with the idea that it would likely be published, although originally, it was going to be a much smaller project. It was originally supposed to be a part of the Osprey Wargames Series, but then it just kind of snowballed. It certainly went from something that was supposed to be a fun little exercise in game creation into something that has taken over my life for the last year!

One of the things I LOVE about Frostgrave is the freedom for individual representation. Is this something you always felt constricted by in the past with tighter rule sets?

When I first started out role-playing and wargaming, most games really pushed the idea of the game as a shared creative experience, a framework in which to use your imagination. I think that has become less common as games have become more big business. In truth, though, I don’t think that it is something I fully realized until Frostgrave came out. The reaction to the ‘freedom’ of Frostgrave has been a bit of a surprise to me. I have just never been one who believed that ‘official’ fluff, minis, or even rules should get in the way of having a good time!

The fluid mechanics and ‘feel’ of Frostgrave really appeals to me as a D&D player, and when my friends and I have played it almost feels like an old West style shoot out with spells and arrows etc flying around all over the place. Was that cinematic/narrational feel something you wanted from the start?

Definitely. First off, I wanted the game to be fast. I wanted to determine the results of something with a few die rolls as possible. The more times you have roll dice to determine one result, the more you separate yourself from the action. There has been a lot of talk about the use of the d20 and how it makes the game more random than many other rulesets. That is true, to an extent, but it is also very intentional. I always wanted a game where the Thug could defeat the Knight. Weird and unexpected results are the basis of great stories and the games we really remember.

 The lack of fluff seems to be a polarizing amongst the FG gaming community. It’s almost like people need to have their hand held and be given specifics of an imagined history in order to enjoy a game. I’m the opposite, I love new horizons, that’s an essential part of gaming for me, seeing what I can do with the tools we are given. Moving forward are you going to keep the fluff light?

I think some people just like to really immerse themselves in creative worlds. I certainly have with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth my whole life. That said, it isn’t what I intend for my game. As more supplements come out, there will be more fluff, almost by default, and we will see a few ‘big chunks’ of stuff here and there, but in general, the world will mostly remain a mystery. The map is covered in ‘There be monsters’!
Too many cool things get ruined by losing their mystery. Are Boba Fett and Wolverine cooler characters now that we’ve seen them both as children?

Joe McCullough and Corehammer OG, Dan Duggan smash out a game over a busy table.

What brought you to England How’d you wind up working for Osprey?

I first came to England as a backpacker about 15 years ago, and spent a month wandering around. A few years after that, I went to Bangor, North Wales to do an MFA. I never completed the program, but I met an English girl who was much more interesting…We were married a year or so later. We stayed in Bangor for a year while she finished up University. When that was done, neither of us had any specific direction, so we started looking for jobs. I had been an Osprey fan for years because of their Men-at-Arms series of books. One day I checked their website, they had a position open, I applied and got the job. I started off working in Production and Design, then moved over to Marketing, dabbled a bit in Editorial, but now mostly do Marketing again. It’s been a wonderful and sometimes wild place to work for the last 10 years.

The audience response to Frostgrave seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. I’m curious as to how and why this evolved through Osprey who have been previously regarded as more of a historical’s company?

Well, there have been a few ‘less than positive’ comments about it, especially early on, but most people who don’t like the game seem to have moved on. Why it came from Osprey – well, a lot of reasons. First Osprey has actually been tinkering with Fantasy and Sci-Fi stuff for a while now. Years ago now, I wrote a book on Zombies for them. This lead to some other not-quite-historical stuff like Nazi Moonbase and The Wars of Atlantis. I think the first non-historical wargame was in the OWG series with In Her Majesty’s Name, a steampunk warband game. As I mentioned, Frostgrave was originally supposed to be in that series, but Phil Smith, the Osprey Games Manager, thought the game would be more restricted in that series. Then North Star got interested… There was no plan to conquer the fantasy world by storm or anything, just one thing kind of lead to another. Osprey has had real success in the games industry, but if they continued to only cover historical topics they would be hugely limiting themselves.

FG seems to have cultivated an atmosphere of relaxed gaming when the norm in the gaming world (thinking of successful you tube channels for example) is often to mathammer lists to the point of utter tedium. Do you think Frostgrave has found it’s own niche demographic?

Is that the norm in the gaming world? Or just what we tend to see on websites and such? I don’t know. Personally, I’ve always loved the more casual side to gaming and I think Frostgrave reflects that. I love that you almost never see Frostgrave ‘tournaments’, they are always events or campaign days. Tournament to be sounds stressful, and that’s not what I’m after with my limited hobby time! What has been especially nice is seeing the number of people who are playing the game with their families. Dads playing with the kids, husbands and wives play together. That is something I haven’t seen a lot of before, but it has been great.

You are very actively involved in the community, posting on the FB group and also post on LAF, so you are way more involved than a lot of rules writers. Is it important for you to be approachable and visible? Do you enjoy it? I imagine you get a lot of punishers!

Well, I like to think I’m just a nice guy and when people ask me a question, I try to answer it. I’m not, really, a huge social media guy by nature. I had to create a Facebook account just so I could join the Frostgrave Facebook groups! I still prefer email. I have been a long time participant on the Lead Adventure Forum, which is why I used that as my base to talk about Frostgrave. I find it one of the most friendly forums around.
I think one of the fundamental differences between Frostgrave and some of the big games on the market is that it is completely written by one person. Most of the big games these days come from companies, who have writing teams. Thus, players can never interact with the author the same way they can with me. The draw back to this, of course, is that I’m only one person! If I haven’t updated the errata, or created new material, it’s probably because I’ve got a day job and a baby, and another baby on the way! It makes for a wonderful, if crowded, life!

How do you see Frostgrave expanding going forward? Campaign books and such?

For Frostgrave to remain interesting to me, I have to keep experimenting with it. I need to try out new soldiers with new rules like the Captains in Sellsword or the new Spell types that will be coming in Into the Breeding Pits, or the solo campaign in Dark Alchemy. I have a much bigger experiment coming next year, but I’m not allowed to talk about it yet!
Don’t worry, there will be lots of new scenarios, magic items, and monsters as well, but these are just ‘more’, I want each supplement to contain something ‘new’, something that changes the way players can play the game to give them a new experience and a reason for returning to Frostgrave!

That’s all I got Joe, thanks for taking time to have a crack at this. As our guest you get the final word…

That’s for the really interesting set of questions Nathan, and thanks to everyone who has supported Frostgrave! If you want to keep up with Frostgrave or other project I might be working on, please check out my blog: HERE

One thought on “Masters Of The Pit – Frostgrave’s Joe McCullough

  1. Frostgrave is a great game, certainly fills the fantasy-skirmish void that Mordheim left, while retaining its own flavor. I’m not a big fan of wizards, so the fact that I enjoy a game that makes them (and their apprentices) the central focus is a credit to the smooth mechanics of the game. Not to mention the unique flavor. Great interview!

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