Interview: Spencer Campbell (Part 1)
The first half where we talk about RUNE, REAP, and balance in games.
This is Part 1 of the interview. Part 2 will be posted on Thursday.
We talked about the mechanisms in REAP (his upcoming solo game of exploration and combat) as well as clocks, design philosophy, and game balance (or lack thereof).
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk! Let’s start with a little bit about your background. How did you end up making games?
Hello! I started making games "professionally" about 3.5 years ago. Right at the start of the pandemic, I had a lot of time on my hands, and thought I'd give it a shot. Before then, my friend Mike and I had tried our hand at making board games. It was fun! But also, a ridiculous amount of work to prototype and test.
I had been playing RPGs for a while at that point, and had already dipped my toes into hacking things, so I thought I would start making my own systems to play the games I wanted to play.
I started with a few PbtA hacks, since that was what I was primarily playing at the time, and then started to move onto my own systems after I felt more comfortable designing things.
Influences on design can come from all sorts of places. Are there any particular games that you feel have influenced your designs?
Folks who are familiar with my work know I'm very influenced by video games haha.
My primary system, LUMEN, was inspired by my love of action RPGs like Diablo and looter shooters like Destiny. I want to translate the fun of video games into the TTRPG space. I think there are a lot of things that video games are doing right that TTRPGs could learn from, at least in terms of how I like to run/play games.
The single most influential board game on me is Root. That was when the concept of asymmetry really clicked in my head, and it was what inspired Slayers. Slayers was my first "big" game, and it got me the momentum to keep designing more and more.
As for other inspirations, it was Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor, who created Spire, that unlocked the idea of just giving characters game breakingly cool powers. John Harper's Blades in the Dark gave me a profound appreciation for tight, focused gameplay loops that you see in a lot of my games.
We'll probably talk about it more later, but it seems like the Dark Souls genre has an impact too! I died during the tutorial in Elden Ring…
They definitely had an impact on designing RUNE and REAP. RUNE is my love letter to that genre. I've definitely played lots of soulslike games.
I would say broadly speaking, they don't influence my design philosophy across multiple games. I think they serve as a very focused inspiration for RUNE and REAP, but from a mechanics standpoint I don't see much of them in my other games.
One connection though, is the idea of just leaving tons of holes in the narrative of games, and letting the players fill them. I love that stuff in souls-like games, and love to see it at the tabletop as well.
Before we dive into REAP, do you have any favorite tabletop game mechanisms?
When I play board games, I absolutely love deck building games and take-that mechanics. Deck building scratches that itch of creating a deck that is fun in card games, without needing to theory-craft a full deck ahead of time, like you need to in TCGs. Take-that mechanics are just fun to me.
From an RPG perspective, my thoughts on mechanics have shifted dramatically within the last few months.
I used to like dice rolling, and now I just don't like it at all. I hate skill checks and anything with binary pass/fail states. What I've found, mechanically, is that resource management is what really resonates with me as a designer and player. That can show up in a lot of different ways in an RPG, but I've found that to be the most exciting and fulfilling way to play the sorts of games I enjoy lately.
Many people might already be familiar with RUNE. Can you share a high level overview of RUNE just for context?
RUNE is my love letter to the souls-like genre of video games. It's a solo TTRPG that switches back and forth between narrative exploration of unique worlds, and brutally difficult and tactical combat.
Your new game is called REAP. What is REAP about, and why is it awesome?
REAP is the spiritual successor to RUNE. It is built on the same core mechanics of RUNE, but takes it to a new world and new premise. In REAP, you are a lone necromancer wandering a dead world. That world is full of terrible horrors whose souls can empower and sustain you. You'll move from one world to the next, reaping souls along the way.
It's a solo TTRPG like RUNE, with the same core premises. But there have been some mechanical changes to REAP to help fit the tone of that game, and the playstyle of being a badass necromancer.
REAP is based on RUNE, and was instantly familiar to me when I tried the free REAP Quick Start the other night. What made you want to change some of the mechanisms vs. just re-skinning RUNE?
So, the best way to cover this is to split the game into its two modes.
During Exploration, in REAP you now have this new component called the Vessel. It is this device that you need to attune to the big bad in the world you are currently exploring. It gives you, the player, some mini goals to try and accomplish during your playthrough. These goals also help provide some guides for what you should be on the lookout for while you explore.
In combat, the Reaper is just sooooo much more powerful than the Engraved from RUNE. This is reflected in a small change in the turn order of combat. In REAP, you get to do all of your actions in whatever order you want, before the enemies get to deal Harm to you. This lets you map out these super powerful and effective spell combos to just devastate your enemies.
On top of that, you're a necromancer, so of course you’re reaping the blood, bone, and bodies of the enemies you kill. These components can be used to enhance your weapons and spells, or fed into a new device you have, called the relic, to get immediate boons (like healing or movement). I think there will be more of a feeling of going for a "build" in REAP than there was in RUNE.
Character creation in REAP is extremely minimal. What are some of the reasons or inspirations for jumping straight into the action in this way?
In general, I think character creation in games should be super fast. I want people to be able to learn a game and be hitting the ground running in minutes. That's especially the case since many of the games I design are intended for shorter scale campaigns. We're not going to see these characters for very long, so let's build them and use them right away.
For REAP, it's a solo game, which means I want you playing nearly instantly. Solo games are those things you sneak in when you have time, sometimes, and a laborious character creation is going to have you bounce off and think, "Do I have time for all this right now?"
During the Exploration phase, each location has actions available at that location: SEARCH, DELVE, or FIGHT. How did you balance between having many different action types vs. just a few?
I first made the decision that there would be a core selection of actions, and those would be pretty much the only things you would see.
I did that for a couple reasons.
While each realm in REAP is unique, I wanted them to share enough mechanical DNA that you could move between them without feeling like you were learning a whole new game for each one.
Search, Learn, Fight, and Delve pretty much cover everything you'd expect to do anyway. In leaving it to just these, it also helps people who want to create their own stuff for RUNE or REAP. They know the vocabulary, the ingredients for exploration, and now they get to combine and cook them however they want.
Characters in REAP choose weapons, spells, and relics. Each one has a mixture of abilities. Is balance a design consideration of yours? How did you ensure the equipment was balanced?
Ooooh balance. I hate it, I really really do.
Balance is almost never ever ever a design consideration for me. That's literally written into the rulebook of a lot of my games.
I don't believe in balance, at least the way it is typically talked about. There is no such thing as a fair fight. Nobody in their right mind would want a fair fight, they would want to fight when they know they're going to win.
Does that mean I just give ludicrous numbers to enemies or weapons? No, of course not. But I also don't torture myself worrying that one little item or spell might be more powerful than another. I think that sort of stuff is perfectly fine in games, in fact, it should be there. Let there be things that are better than others. That makes finding and earning that new item all the better when you get to go, "Oh shit, I'm going to be so powerful now that I found this!"
Do you think making solo games is more conducive to that style of design vs. multiplayer games?
Hmmm, probably. Because with a solo game, if something doesn't feel right, mechanically, you can just change it. Nobody is watching you, nobody can stop you.
So if something doesn't feel balanced, and you think it is having a negative impact on the game, you can just change it without a care.
I truly think you can do that same exact thing in multiplayer games as well, but that's a conversation you have as a group. Assuming you all like you each other, you should be more than capable as a group to go, "Hey, how do we feel about X rule/mechanic? Want to tweak it a little?"
My interview with Spencer ran long, but was really interesting! Rather than cutting it down and missing out on some cool bits, I’ve decided to split it into two parts.
This concludes Part 1 for today. Part 2 will be posted on Thursday. It’s a double Skeleton Code Machine week!
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See you… on Thursday! ;)
— E.P. 💀
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