Friday, July 24, 2015

Game Designer Interview: Joseph McCullough of Osprey Games - Creator of FROSTGRAVE

Frostgrave is a brand new warband scale game written by Joseph McCullough of Osprey Games with miniature support by Northstar Miniatures. In the USA, you can purchase models and books from Brigade Games (the rules are also available on Amazon). It should be said that you can use whatever models you like for this game!

What sets this game apart? It is a warband style game similar to Mordheim or Necromunda, but it uses a D20 and really focuses on the wizards that lead the warbands, as opposed to the whole warband. The wizards gain experience and spells while the warbands stay pretty stock - they can acquire items and such but they don't get experience. It makes the bookkeeping much easier. Check out some more great reasons here.

It also includes an alternating activation system that always makes this gamer happy. Enough from me, check out what the author had to say!

Can you introduce yourself - what you have done before, perhaps what other games you like to play, and share a little about the process you undertook with Osprey?

I come from Greensboro, North Carolina. My parents were both fantasy fans, so I grew up on Lord of Rings, Narnia, and later Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. After University, I went to do a Masters in Creative Writing in the United Kingdom. I didn’t finish the course, but I met a young English woman and ended up getting married. With no specific prospects, I applied for a job with Osprey, since I had long been a fan of the company. I got the job and have been there for nearly ten years, first working in production, then marketing, and most recently running their Adventures line of books. I’ve also done a lot of work as a freelance author, doing some work in the role-playing industry and writing a number of books, many for Osprey.

The brawny barbarian!
Frostgrave originally grows out of discussions between myself and Phil Smith, Games Manager at Osprey. We would talk about the kind of games we liked, and when I said that no one had really written the kind of fantasy game I most wanted to play, he challenged me to write it.

I guess I had most of the ideas already in my head, because I wrote the first draft in two weeks during a holiday in the Lake District. After that there were endless revisions, tweaks, and rounds of playtesting. Phil allowed me almost complete freedom, only stepping in when something clearly didn’t work or make sense. That said, he was pretty strict when it came to deadlines, especially getting him the references for artwork!

I did work on the military history books for most of my time here. When I started I was in production, and I handled all of the reprints, so correcting any mistakes, replacing old covers with new ones, etc. Did that for about a year and a half before moving over to Marketing. There I made catalogues, adverts, organized show appearances, ran the blog. I even created the persona of the Osprey Quizmaster, who went on to write his own Military History Quiz Book, published by Osprey. I don't work on the military side now, but that is still what most of the company is geared for. I'm part of the editorial department, so most of the people around me are hard work on military history.

The process from an editorial standpoint is one of trying to organize everything - being the man in the middle between the author and the artist especially, but also proof-readers, map makers, image suppliers, our own production and design teams. It takes a lot of work to make one of those little books happen!

How closely did you work with Northstar Miniatures to build this game? Was it entirely your design, and then models were created, or were there some models that were definitely in mind beforehand? How long did you work on this?

I wrote the game before I knew that Northstar would be involved or that any official models would be created. I provided artwork references for a bunch of wizards and a few monsters. These were brought to life by the artist Dmitry Burmak who did all of the artwork for the book. The figures were mostly based on his paintings, or extrapolated from them. I was shown them as they were being created, but generally I thought they were so good, I had little to say. Most of the credit for creating the figures belongs to Nick Eyre and Northstar and Phil Smith. 
Can you tell us about the world of Frostgrave? How does it compare to say, the Old World in Warhammer, Mordheim, etc?

The world of Frostgrave is deliberately vague. The game all takes place in and around one city, and even that I have painted in only broad strokes. I want to give players just enough to set their imaginations going, but not weigh them down with specifics. I’m sure, over time, the world will grow and develop, but I always want to leave plenty of remove for players to tell their own stories.
What is the life like for an average person in Frostgrave (or around it if nobody lives there)?

Cold! Actually, the only permanent residents of the Frozen City are undead, constructs, and a bunch of monsters. Some wizards take up temporary residence while they explore the ruins, but it is far too dangerous for common folk. To the south of the city, a bunch of boom towns have sprung up, to cater to people adventuring into Frostgrave. These are tough, wild places – sort of like a snowy, fantasy Old West. There are actually settlements farther afield, but the game doesn’t go into them.

Are there 'non-humans' in Frostgrave? If so, what do they do, are they outlaws? Are there 'armies' of them around the area?

If by ‘non-humans’ you mean orcs, elves, and dwarves, the answer is no. I wanted people to feel free to use whatever miniatures they wanted to represent their warbands, and I believe the best way to do this was by not creating specific racial characteristics. All of the troop types in the game are suitably generic that they can easily be represented by an elf, dwarf or a mousling, without creating the imbalance that often results from specific racial traits.

That said, there are plenty of non-human monsters wandering the ruins: snow trolls, white gorillas, ice spiders, giants, etc.
Did you pull inspiration from any other specific games, perhaps Mordheim?

Inevitably I have drawn inspiration from a lot of the games I have played over the years. Thematically it is similar to Mordheim, but the mechanics have very little in common. I’d say most of my inspiration actually comes from outside of wargaming, from other types of games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Silent Death, and even Magic: The Gathering

Can you talk a little about the design process for the game?

I think most of the design process was actually going on in my head over my last twenty years of playing miniatures games. By the time I came to write it, I found most of the rules were already waiting to be put down on paper. Some of them had to be carefully tweaked and modified, the basic combat mechanism especially. Really, though, the core system came all at once. The rest was just endless rounds of little changes to try get everything to balance at feel right. 

What kind of 'story' or 'fluff' didn't make the game book?

There isn’t that much fluff in the book. If you want stories, there is a companion book Frostgrave: Tales of the Frozen City, where a group of great writers got to try their hand telling stories in Frostgrave. I read all of these and discussed them with the author to make sure they fit well within the setting. So, if you after a bit of narrative and inspiration, I’d go there. Otherwise, the fluff, is presented in little bits and pieces. More of this will be coming in the supplements, but again, I want to keep the world open, so that players can easily modify it to suit their own needs.

How does this game compare to some of the other games that Osprey has released recently?

I think this is the first time that Osprey has invested this level of involvement in a wargame that is not made in conjunction with another wargaming company. Format wise, it is similar to Bolt Action and Force on Force, and like both of those games, there are supplements planned. However, unlike either of those games, Frostgrave is a much smaller skirmish game with a very heavy emphasis on campaign and narrative. It is also the first time that Osprey has contributed to the production of figures. (Previous Osprey games have had figures created by Northstar under license. The Frostgrave figures are true joint project between the two companies). 

Why should players play this game? What are some of the distinguishing characteristics?

I designed Frostgrave to be fast and bloody, so that you should easily be able to get a couple of games into an evening of gaming. I think two things really set the game apart. The big one is magic – there are 80 spells in the game and every wizards starts with 8. So there is huge variation in the potential strategies that players can employ to grab treasure and defeat their enemies. The other element that I think makes the game special is its campaign system. Over the course of a campaign, wizards can really grow and develop and create a warband just the way they want it. I think this goes a long way to giving the wargame a more role-play type feel.

I did like that you included some alternating activation mechanics - can you explain to readers how that works? I think that is a huge draw for this game!

I think the most important development in wargaming over the last couple of decades has been the movement away from traditional IGOUGO turn sequences. Using some form of alternating actions makes a game feel much faster and keeps all of the players more involved. In Frostgrave, each turn is divided into four phases. The first phase is the wizard phase. First one player moves his wizard and up to three soldiers who are within 3 inches of him. Then other player does the same. The turn this moves to the apprentice phase, where first one, and then the other player move their apprentices and up to 3 soldiers with him. Then comes the soldier phase, in which any soldier who didn't move in the previous phases take their actions. Finally, the turn ends with the creature phase in which all monsters who aren't under the control of either side take their actions, following a very simple set of instructions.

I think this style of activation gives the game a really quick, back and forth feel. It moves the game closer to making the figures feel like they are moving at the same time.

Can you talk about how spellcasting works and the different 'schools' of magic?

Casting a spell is about as easy as it gets. Each of your spells will have a casting number associated with it. This is the number you need to beat on a d20 for the spell to go off. Apprentices know the same spells, but aren’t quite as good so they have a -2 to the roll. That said, there is some strategy involved; if you miss the roll, a spellcaster can spend his health to increase the roll. So, often the player has to decide just how much pain is it worth to cast this spell?

There are ten different schools of magic. Most of these are based on classic magical tropes. Elementalists throw fireballs and like to make things explode. Summoners attempt to get demons to do their dirty work. Illusionists try to trick the senses, and so on. Each of the school has 3 allied schools, 5 neutral schools, and 1 opposed school. Each wizard picks his school of magic and the spells of this school will be easiest he has to cast. That said, all of the wizards can learn magic from any of the schools; however, the farther away a school is from his own the harder it will be to cast them.

What type of terrain should players collect for their first game?

Lots! It doesn’t really matter what kind of terrain you’ve got. Sure bespoke frozen ruins look best, but for your first game just throw whatever you’ve got on the table. Just make sure there is a lot of it. The Frozen City is a close-packed maze like place. Besides, if you have lots of wide-open areas, wizards throwing fire balls are going to dominate!

Did you write the rules with a specific base size in mind?

Nope. Use whatever you want. It is unlikely to make much difference.

The Frostgrave plastic miniatures look amazing.
Can you talk about some of the expansions for the game that are coming out? 

In November, Osprey will be release the first expansion, Thaw of the Lich Lord. This book contains ten scenarios that form a continuous narrative, a few new spells, some new monsters, and a special treasure table. At the same time, there will be another miniature release, including a new plastic box set. After that, there is a second expansion book planned, and at least one smaller e-book supplement. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to say too much about these at present. 

What kind of ongoing support will there be for this game?

As I mentioned, there are already two books and an e-book in the works, along with a load more miniatures as well. Beyond that, a Frostgrave specific board has been set up on the Lead-Adventure forum where I can answer questions and players can talk about the game and show-off their battles. I have lots of plans for Frostgrave, so if people remain interested, I will continue to work on improving the game while creating new material to keep it fresh and interesting.

Have you thought about a 'comeback' mechanic in a campaign? Ie. someone gets way leveled up and others join in - any 'underdog' bonuses or anything?

That seems to be one of the major topics of discussion at the moment on the forums and such. First I would say, wizard levels aren't quite as important as they may first look. The difference between a level 5 wizard and level 0 isn't much really. That said, it can get out of hand, and if it that happens early the effect can be greater.

What I'm planning on doing, is writing some scenarios that aimed specifically at this situation. So, a scenario that favors the underdog.  Powerful wizards in the Frozen City have an habit of attracting unwanted attention!  Ed's note: check out a new scenario here.

Right now though, I've been kind of overwhelmed by the response and haven't had a chance to catch my breath!

Stay tuned to the blog for more information on Frostgrave, our first impressions and battle reports - thanks to Joe for the great interview and check out this game!


  1. great interview! cant wait to check this out.

  2. Very nice to hear the designer'r criteria and thought processes.