Behind the Screen #3: Craig Campbell
Behind the Screen
Episode #3: Craig Campbell
This week on “Behind the Screen” we have ourselves a fireside* chat with the high lord of NerdBurger Games, Craig Campbell. Craig has been a game designer from before the change in millennium, cutting his teeth in the late 90’s working on modules for Dungeons & Dragons and other mainstream games before moving forward to create his own design company. Fast forward and Craig is now the creative force behind Nerdburger’s promising library of games, including Murders & Acquisitions, Die Laughing, and the BAMfies Award winning Capers.
*No real fire was present. This is a bold-faced lie
D10Again: Alrighty, so first up, as always we love to hear about what people are playing, especially designers. So what adventures are gallivanting about your home table when you are not "on the clock" for Nerdburger?
Craig: As of late, it's honestly been mostly running my games. The perils of a being an RPG designer. I played in a long-term D&D group but dropped out recently to try to play some more indie RPGs. Right now, it's mostly one-shots of Fate system games, the occasional PbtA game, and reading game books in preparation of actually getting to run and play some other stuff. A couple local meetup groups have gotten going, so I should be able to get into more games in the coming months.
D10again: Do you find games as rewarding, or perhaps more so, when they’re your own system? Or do you find yourself falling into "revision mode" while you play?
Craig: I certainly enjoy running (and playing in) games I've designed myself. There's a certain satisfaction to being at the table seeing other players enjoying something I created. It's like how a GM feels good about running a good game— but the game is also one you designed. It's cool.
I've managed to avoid "revision mode" while playing my own stuff. Are there bits of the game that I might do differently? Of course. But once the game is published, it's no longer really MY game. Now it belongs to the people who buy and play it. I trust them to tweak as they see fit, and maybe even fix something that could be better, for their games. I may feel different later. Ask me about "revision mode" again once one of my games is 5+ years old.
D10again: Ah, so no 2nd Edition Advanced Murders and Acquisitions yet then? *laughs*
Craig: Not just yet, no.
D10again: We have to ask. Nerdburger, the name? Fun with assonance or is there a story here?
Craig: It started with the podcast I do with my friend Mike, the NerdBurger Show. We wanted a name that reflected that we'd be talking about all sorts of nerdy/geeky stuff and probably cracking a lot of jokes. The name came from Mike, and I immediately said, "Yep, that's the one." And we ran with it.
D10again: Before we dive into your new projects, you have been behind the screen or throwing dice for over 25 years. Can you tell us a bit about your gaming roots?
Craig: I started my first year of college with a Ravenloft game, AD&D 2e. Over the course of college, we played a LOT of D&D, but also Star Wars, Shadowrun, Paranoia, even Toon. Later in college, I discovered World of Darkness and played a bunch of Vampire, Mage, and Changeling. Dipped my toe in Call of Cthulhu and Rolemaster (UGH). Then I found Deadlands, easily my favorite RPG ever. I love the Old West and horror, so it was perfect for me. I'm not as well versed in the more recent indie games as I'd like to be (at least in terms of playing; reading I've done), but I'm working on it.
I started GMing almost immediately upon getting into gaming. I've GMed and played in fairly equal measure until recently, where I'm mostly GMing.
D10again: Do you have a preference to be behind the screen?
Craig: I think I'm better suited to GMing, but I'm not entirely sure why. I guess maybe because I like engaging the players in multiple dimensions. Presenting challenges, portraying NPCs, throwing dice for monsters, describing the setting, eliciting an emotion. As a GM, you get to do this more and directed toward more of the people at the table. Not to say I don't like playing. I certainly love coming up with a fun character, but GMing is where I'm most at home.
D10again: Now you once said that you had little interest in playing older editions, of which I am assuming you were referring to D&D. Why is that? How have you avoided the old Grognard "You can pry THACO from my cold dead hands" mentality?
Craig: Earlier editions of D&D have their place. There are people that love them, and I don't fault them for that. But I find those earlier editions sort of sprawling and unorganized. Roll d20 and you want high. Then roll d20 and you want low. Percentile dice. Individual dice combinations for every weapon and every different spell. Newer systems are simply more elegant, easier to learn and play. I like that. Plus, the world moves ever forward. New things are constantly coming out. People are innovating. I like to explore that.
D10again: You mentioned that you’re beginning to explore the Indie game scene in earnest these days? Can you tell me what it is you look for in a game? Have there been any recent stand outs?
Craig: I just want to try something different, something I've never played before. Partly just to explore, but also as an indie designer. Most of my games are more or less "traditional RPGs" but with SOME more indie aspects to them. I'm interested in seeing different ways of doing things in mechanical terms. I find a lot of PbtA games interesting, given their leaning toward narrative with just a bit of mechanics to guide that. Threadbare is lovely, simple yet cozy. Kids on Bikes and Rememorex scratch my "child of the 80s" itch. Damn the Man, Save the Music proves that an incredibly niche sub-genre can produce a very specific and fun game experience.
D10again: Moving into your own designs and games, you first cut your teeth on D&D publications if I'm no mistaken. What did these early creations teach you? Were there any games from back in the day that you felt were good lessons for game design?
Craig: Freelancing for D&D taught me how to deconstruct game mechanics and how to present information, both for adventures, but also for general setting. How to get the point across clearly, presenting information in the right order. Also, the people I worked with taught me a lot about how to be a freelancer, designer, and publisher in the business sense. How to communicate with collaborators. The importance of deadlines, hitting your outline, and being open to change and development. I'm most proud of Baba Yaga's Dancing Hut from Dungeon 196. It was a massive adventure/mini-setting that I found very challenging, both in terms of size but also coordination of all the many pieces. That piece more than any other helped me realize how daunting designing my own game would be just because of the scale of the thing.
D10again: How does the legacy of these older games shape your design/writing approaches? Do you sometimes find that there are old habits, or ingrained ideas that exist within these old games that you struggle against or hope to overcome?
Craig: My games have plenty of hold-overs. Hits, as in hit points. Initiative checks like in D&D. I'm aware of them. In some cases, I simply don't come up with something I like better that is more "innovative" or at least different. In some cases, I chose to replicate some of these older game mechanic on purpose. The game mechanic for CAPERS involves flipping playing cards, not rolling dice. That mechanic is different enough and has a learning curve associated with it that I decided to stick to some tried and true RPG tropes for some of the other mechanics. So to keep the game from potentially turning a new player off by being TOO different, here's some things you recognize and understand, and then here's this OTHER thing that is very different and will require some work on your end.
D10again: When you approach the design of new game, what is your design philosophy? Can you tell us a bit about your creative process? Without letting the audience see the rabbit in the hat so to speak *laughs*.
Craig: I like game mechanics that relate in some way to the game's story and/or setting. There's an elegance to that sort of design that I strive for. At the same time, I try not to let that dominate the game. I tend to not over-design for every little nuance, instead providing guidelines and trusting players to find their own way on strange edge cases in the rules. The mechanics for Die Laughing are literally a countdown to your character's death. And killing characters is what Die Laughing is all about. But there's only four traits and they can be interpreted somewhat broadly. But I don't care if they are, as long as the players enjoy it and remain consistent so everyone knows what to expect.
D10again: We thought that the cards mechanic was one of the brilliant aspects of CAPERS. Do you find yourself pushing yourself to go beyond the boundaries of the standard "roll dice, hit monster" mechanic? Is that a priority for you?
Craig: Not necessarily a priority, but I like challenging myself. I had done a bunch of freelancing for games with dice systems, had designed Murders & Acquisition, which uses dice, and decided to branch out. I loved Deadlands' use of playing cards for part of the mechanics, so I tried developing a game that ONLY uses playing cards. Die Laughing was an experiment in minimalist design. The game mechanic only does two things: determine whether you succeed or fail in a scene and bring someone closer to death.
D10again: When you walked away from freelance work to start Nerdburger, what were the challenges you had to face? Any wisdom earned from that process for all the new indie publishers out there?
Craig: I was pretty confident I could come up with at least a serviceable game. The challenges were in finding and wrangling playtesters, becoming an art director, becoming a publisher and marketer. When you work indie, you fill a lot of roles. It takes time and mistakes to learn how to do that stuff. On the up-side, I do this in my free time, so the game is done when I feel like the game is done. I set deadlines for myself to stay motivated, but ultimately, I can let things slide if they need to.
As for advice, just do it. Write the game. If you have an idea, there is SOMEONE out there that is just waiting -- and has been waiting for a long time -- for that game. Design, playtest, revise. Keep moving.
D10again: Back in the day, you either got something published in Dragon Magazine, or an established gaming company picked up your work? How have places like DM’s Guild and DriveThrueRPG changed the game?
Craig: It has never been easier to bring your creative vision to life...and this is in all creative spaces. Art, fiction, music, whatever. You can at the very least put a PDF up on DriveThruRPG. At the top end, you can develop something much bigger and take it to Kickstarter to find people to help you get the rest of the way. There are no excuses anymore.
D10again: Do you think the gaming community is in a better place from 25 years ago?
Craig: It's a golden age of sorts. If you can think of an idea, there's probably a game out there for it, or something that can be adapted, or someone working on it right now. The internet has helped connect gamers to be able to play even if you don't have a local group or live way out in the country. And that has created a boom in the popularity of RPGs.
D10again: So what’s next for Nerdburger? What are the plans for the future?
Craig: More CAPERS supplements in the immediate future. And I'm working on something called Code Warriors, but that's still in early development. My convention attendance is going to be lighter this year than last, but I'll be at GenCon and then at AcadeCon in November. Probably some local Atlanta stuff, too. Beyond that, who knows. Maybe a game that used dominoes for the mechanics.
D10again: So Final Jeopardy time. If you could take the reins of any mainstream game or setting, what would it be and what would you with it?
Craig: This may come as a cop-out answer, but honestly...none of them. I like contributing to other games here and there, but I am very at home carving out my own little corner of the RPG landscape. I get to be my own boss, make the games I want to make, and succeed or fail on my own merits.
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