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Roll for Narrative: An Interview with Spencer Campbell, Making Sci-Fi Playable on Your Table
Geordie Morse: Can you give me an “elevator pitch” for your new tabletop roleplaying game, FRAME?
Spencer Campbell: FRAME is what I call my second “love letter” RPG that I’ve made, it’s my love letter to the “looter shooter” genre that is so popular in computer and video games. The inspiration for FRAME comes from [the video game] Warframe. FRAME is a rules-light tabletop roleplaying game focused on fast, action-packed combat without getting bogged down into a granular, crunchy rules system. It’s supposed to be fast, lethal and fun.
GM: Can you give a quick definition of what a “looter shooter” is, for people who might not know the video game term?
SC: Yeah, so looter shooters are a style of video game where you are usually some incredibly powerful, super soldier-like being who goes around on missions and fights enemies and you get new loot, which is usually like guns or ammo or armor and things like that, that make you more powerful, and then you just go and do it again! It’s sort of like this infinite loop that you get stuck in; but the grind is the experience, you’re always trying to make yourself more and more powerful.
GM: Originally, you had a hybrid Kickstarter running that included both FRAME and your other game LIGHT. Is it correct to say LIGHT was inspired by Bungie Studios’ Destiny franchise, as FRAME was inspired by Warframe?
SC: So LIGHT was my first “love letter” game; it’s Destiny with the serial numbers filed off. It’s definitely heavily inspired by Destiny with that same idea of taking the things I love about Destiny as a looter shooter, and translating them into a quick and easy tabletop format, so that you can still kind of scratch that power fantasy, looter shooter itch without having to hop onto your computer for a few hours and play.
GM: Are there other science fiction inspirations that you’ve been drawing from as you’ve been writing FRAME and LIGHT?
SC: I think there’s always kind of the core sci-fi things that are just always going to be in the back of my head. As a kid I was exposed to Star Wars from my parents, and so there will probably always be some elements of that in my design. I love Dune; I’ve attempted to read Dune many times, and I think I’ve successfully read it twice. The attempts definitely outweighed the successes. It’s not just a simple two-circle Venn diagram; there are like twenty circles that are overlapping with each other in Dune. I’ve always liked that. In most of my games, giving opportunities to players to do things that aren’t just, “go kill the bad guys”; I like providing opportunities for political intrigue and exploration of ideas, exploring our relationship with technology. So I think Dune is just one of those foundational sci-fi things, because I read it at a relatively young age, I think it’s always just in the back of my head as I’m making anything in the sci-fi space, or really anything that has any kind of political intrigue, it doesn’t even have to be sci-fi.
GM: Are you intending to capture a bit of that political intrigue in FRAME?
SC: I want to try that, without being too heavy handed with it. A lot of my games are, for better or for worse, relatively open to interpretation or invite the players to bring a lot of what they want to see into the game, so I intentionally leave holes in my games for them to fill. But there are things in the game itself that allude to these different factions within the setting that all want different things, and it’s up to the players to decide who they want to work with, because that will dictate the types of missions they go on and the sorts of rewards they get and things like that. So you see that in FRAME and you see that in LIGHT, I love this idea of factional play and being able to play within that sort of space.
GM: What elements of sci-fi do you feel are effective or important to represent in the medium of tabletop roleplaying?
SC: So, when I think of sci-fi, I think about few different things: where can humanity go, what can we accomplish, what is the next step for us? And then a big part of it is our relationship with technology and things like that. That shows up a lot in FRAME, because in FRAME you are quite literally, like, humans who have been melded with machine in order to create a defense force for this star system; it brings to mind, where do we draw the line between man and machine and to what lengths will we go to protect ourselves, but also to take more? We see it in cyberpunk, which I consider obviously related to sci-fi and things like that—the machine of greed, of perpetuating individuals and corporations, but ultimately with sci-fi you can expand it out to, like, the species; will we be focused on consumption and growth, or will we be focused within ourselves, and growing in a positive way, or in a devouring sort of way? I think that’s one of the things that’s most interesting to me, because again, it goes back to this idea of factional play. Everybody’s going to have a different interpretation of what is going to be the best way for us as a species to—like, what’s your priority? Is it survival? Is it thriving? Is it conquering? And I think that sort of stuff is really interesting to see in tabletop spaces, because you can see it in games that cover big sweeping scopes, but you can also just see it within a small party, where everybody just has their own individual preferences on, like, do I look out for myself as number one, or do I look out for the group? So we see elements of it at a micro and macro level.
GM: How much responsibility does each player at the table have for telling a story during a session of FRAME?
SC: Frame is one of those games where the individual story that’s told within a session, I think is—there’s not a lot of responsibility on the players, they obviously dictate what they do and how they do things. It’s at the tail ends where you see the player-heavy lifting. They ultimately decide who they want to work for and then reflect, after they do a job for a particular faction, they see the consequences and they go, was that the right decision? Should we maybe go work for these people over here, because they’ve got a different way of doing things? I see the player influence happening at the beginning of the session and then again at the end, it’s sort of this reflective period that they go through.
GM: What game mechanics reinforce that setup?
SC: I like cycles of play in my games, so that there’s a clear, here’s what you should do in a session. That’s why I like games like Blades in the Dark so much, because it has a very clear cycle of play that you go through. So in FRAME the cycle of play is written out as, players seek out and choose a faction to get their job from, the GM then debriefs the players on what the job entails. The bulk of the session is then going out and doing that mission, and then at the end, there’s sort of this reflective period between missions where the Frames and the players see the outcome, see the feedback so to speak, of the mission, and they can keep that in mind as the next session begins. Like, okay, that went the way we wanted it to, and things are moving in the right direction, or, next time let’s pick a different faction, because we’re not satisfied with what’s going on right now.
GM: Do you attempt to have your worldbuilding and narrative inform game mechanics, or vice-versa, in a sense of “ludonarrative harmony” being applied to tabletop RPGs?
SC: My worldbuilding is pretty minimal in most of the games that I design. I think the world becomes reflective of the mechanics, rather than the mechanics becoming reflective of the world. I’m one of those folks that starts with mechanics rather than a world or a theme. For example, with Corvid Court, which is not the game we’re talking about, but it’s another one of those games that I made where I had a mechanic in mind, I had a system that I wanted to play with, and then the worldbuilding that came afterward was—I mentioned earlier that I leave holes in my games. This one was riddled with holes, but I wanted it to be that way. For me, that is important in that kind of game, to give the players the narrative freedom to choose the direction they want to take the story, without the mechanics getting in the way. So same thing with FRAME, where I’m not doing a whole lot of heavy lifting with the worldbuilding ahead of time. I’m giving a framework that folks can work with, but I want to invite the table to do a lot of the story writing together, rather than just playing in my sandbox that I make for them.
GM: So theoretically, if a group were to be playing your game for a consistent year or so, they might create a world you never imagined?
SC: Absolutely! That’s why I wrote Slayers as this infinite city, where like, any neighborhood could be in it. I even explicitly say it in Corvid Court—your city, your version of this setting is going to be different than what I have in my head, and that’s really cool to me. So for me, I like talking to people who have played my games and hearing about their settings, and going, wow, I would never have thought of that! But that’s so cool that you thought of that.
GM: Obviously Warframe players will be interested in your game. How are you going to try and sell this game to a more general audience?
SC: I haven’t really thought about a general take for non-sci fi fans; I’ve done my early draft sharing with three important groups: RPG players who also love Warframe, that’s the easiest sell, then RPG players who don’t know Warframe, but like RPGs, and then seeing if the premise of this game sounds interesting enough. And then Warframe fans who aren’t RPG players. Can I bring them into the TTRPG space with this thing they love? So that’s primarily how I’ve focused on it. If I were to try and think about it in a broader sense, I would lean into folks who like this job style of roleplaying, or very clear cycle of play, so people who like the idea of, you’re going to get a mission at the start of the session, and the whole session is doing the mission, and you get rewards for doing it. Blades in the Dark does that. Anybody who’s played any Shadowrun or Cyberpunk game, where you’re going out and doing heists or crimes; I write a lot of games about crimes, so I just like the idea of doing cycles of missions and stuff like that. So I think that’s the broader approach; if you like a thing that gives you a nice, clear, structured cycle of play, but with enough flexibility and ease with the rules that you can just jump into it without having to read 400 pages, then FRAME will be a good game for you, I think.
GM: Are you relying on visual aesthetic to get people interested in this game? If so, what elements are you focusing on?
SC: Absolutely. I’m not a graphic designer, I’m not an artist, but I’ve got friends and people that that I know who are, so the two visual aesthetics that I’m leaning hard on are the character art that’s being done, and the layout art that’s being done. And the logo, which Adam Vass did. Adam did an excellent job. He also did my logo for LIGHT, so you can see the parallels because the systems are very similar. Jam is doing the layout and graphic design, and when I was describing to her what I was thinking, I talked a lot about a darker theme, hard lines, sharp edges and things like that. Because that’s what I think of when I think of Warframe. So the layout that she’s previewed, that I’m using on the Kickstarter page, will show off that tone and vibe you’re going to get as you flip through the pages. It’s not a nice clean layout, it’s darker, it’s sharper, edgier… and I mean edgier in terms of like, sharp edges and lines, not in the writing. I’m not an edgy writer, I don’t think. For the character art I found someone who specializes in doing Warframe fanart, and so I reached out to her and said, I’m making an RPG that’s inspired by Warframe; obviously you’re very good at drawing the official Warframes, would you consider trying to make alternative versions? She was totally on board, so I’ve been showing off some of the early sketches on Twitter. Some of that art is going to be put together on the Kickstarter page as well. I think it will help players to understand who you are playing as, when you see that character art. Right now I describe it as, you’re a biomechanical super soldier, and I think everybody’s going to have a different thought about that, depending on their own experience with sci-fi. So that will help ground it, and seeing Jam’s layout will give you a very clear sense of the direction that this game is going.
GM: How important are visuals to a medium like TTRPGs in a more general sense?
SC: I think visual stuff is as important to you as it needs to be. For example, when I was first releasing stuff on my own, like I said, I’m not a graphic designer, I’m not an artist, it was very simple text on a different-colored background, so it wasn’t just black text on a white background. But the premise of the game still stood on its own, and we see so many amazing indie RPGs out there that don’t have to be this visually stunning, fully illustrated book. Even folks who use public domain art—there are some people out there who do really cool stuff with public domain art, which is awesome. It matters if you’re going to use Kickstarter, right? That’s the honest answer. Do you want to sell a lot of it? Then it does matter. Because the itch.io indie RPG space is very supportive of one another, and we understand indie RPGs. There’s a lot of different ways to interpret what an RPG even is. But the second you want to take it to a bigger market, it’s a reality that art sells. The visual stuff is going to matter if you want to put it on Kickstarter and move units. But I’ve read so many games on itch that aren’t filled with that sort of art, that are equally as amazing as the big games that you see up on Kickstarter, so I guess it just depends on the scope you have in mind, in terms on how big you want to make this sort of thing.
GM: What other hats do you wear outside of game design, and how do they influence your game design?
SC: I’m a psychologist. I have a PhD in Cognitive Psychology; specifically that means I study things like problem solving, decision making, thinking, intelligence, memory and language. All of that stuff, if you add it together, is what is a game is, right? A game is filled with decision making scenarios, and problem solving, and creativity, and stuff like that. I have all of this theoretical background on how that stuff is supposed to work, but then as a scientist I also know that theory, once you put it into the real world, can fall apart pretty quickly, or that the real world is messier than theory. So I use a lot of my psych background in the designing and testing of my stuff, because I’m a statistician as well in the research that I do. So when I do playtesting and stuff like that, I get into the numbers a lot and enjoy that. But I also have a YouTube channel where I make videos about the psychology of roleplaying games. I talk about a concept like problem solving, and I do a short video about that, and I connect it to TTRPGs in certain ways. Or I’ll pick a game that I really love, and I’ll pick out an idea about that game. Adam Vass’s Necronautilus, which is that really cool sci-fi game where you are agents of death in a galactic afterlife sort of thing; it’s all about memory and wordplay, which are two things I studied a lot in grad school. So I was like, I can’t wait to talk about this game! That’s the other big hat that I wear—I’m a professor of psychology, I teach psychology, so I thought, why not use that skill to teach other folks about psychology while connecting it to this thing that we all love.
GM: How can people support FRAME?
SC: Right now it is still in the pre-launch phase on Kickstarter, so you can go to the link for the Kickstarter and click the notify button, so you’ll get an email right away when it launches. The campaign for FRAME will launch on March 13th, and it runs for three weeks until April 3rd. Right now the best way to support it is to click that button so you get notified right away, and sharing that link obviously helps a ton, and come the 13th, it will go live. I’m just really excited to get it out there and hopefully have an explosive first day. That’s the goal for any Kickstarter, is to have a really good first day.
The Kickstater campaign for FRAME and details about Spencer’s other projects can be found in the links below.
FRAME Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thegilaboy/light-frame
Itch.io page: https://gilarpgs.itch.io/
YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/Thegilaboy