Nova RPG creator on bringing Destiny and Overwatch-inspired 'looter shooter' action to the tabletop
Designer Spencer Campbell talks insights, inspirations and washing his hands of gamers.
It’s been months since designer Spencer Campbell launched then subsequently cancelled Frame, his tabletop RPG inspired by the Warframe video game, due to harassment over accusations of plagiarism. Now, he seems ready to put the ordeal in the rearview mirror as he heads towards the newly Kickstarted project, Nova.
This new title has been built on top of the Lumen system, a mechanics-only system reference document derived from the scrapped and salvaged remains of Frame. A recent game jam promoted others to create in that shared space alongside Campbell, and he’s publicly supporting smaller related titles using Itchfunding through the Lux Collective initiative.
Ahead of the Kickstarter campaign, which runs through July 3rd, we spoke to Campbell about what he wants out of this creatively busy part of his life, what it has meant to move beyond Frame and the breakneck action Nova brings to the tabletop.
How did you first conceive of Nova and begin its development?
Spencer Campbell: It was originally conceived as a reframing of Frame [small laugh], which was my previous game that I had thrown on Kickstarter for about three hours. In the course of that day, I closed up the campaign and made the decision to walk away and reframe it in a new setting that's not going to get these people so riled up. In the meantime, I developed what's called the Lumen System, which I released as an SRD. The concept of Nova actually comes from a 2018 game called DIM that my friend Mike Reiman and I built for a 200-word micro RPG event whose premise was ‘the sun has exploded’.
Why did you decide to release Lumen as an SRD?
There are three reasons that were going on at the same time. One, it personally helps me develop if I have a system mapped out. By writing this SRD, I gave myself a solid framework that I could use when iterating on my own stuff. Two, people have said my games are easy to make things for or to hack and add to, so I wanted to give people the tools. The third part was sort of a middle finger to get back at the Frame people and I was like, “Listen, I'm gonna just put this out here, and now anybody can make a video game-inspired TTRPG. And if we’re all doing it, what are you going to do about it?”
How did it feel to release a game for free to the public that you had initially planned to sell?
I'll never know how it would have actually turned out and that's one of those big question marks that'll just haunt me. But I wanted to take that frustration and turn it into something productive.
How much of Frame ended up in the DNA of Nova?
I really had intended at the very beginning for it to just truly be like a different coat of paint that I threw on top. The basic concept of being these badass exosuits that go on missions is still the core premise, but there's a lot of the mechanics that have changed through talking with other designers about it. Once I started tinkering, I lost sight of the original repainting, and it formulated itself into a new thing, which is - I think - ultimately, much better and cooler than just a recoated frame. I'm so much more excited about this game than I was for Frame. It was a cool game, but it was a love letter. Now, I'm kind of free to just do whatever I want because this is my setting, and that has kind of loosened things up and created something much more interesting and fun.
Can you provide a brief rundown of how Nova plays?
By creating these games that are highly modular, I'm trying to get people to see that anybody can be a designer.
It's a rules-lite, action-packed game where you play as exosuits on an Earth in which the sun has exploded. We go out into the ruins of Old Earth to try and rebuild. It runs using the Lumen system, which means it's combat focused - but the combat is very fast and more geared toward narrative. It's a little loose in some interpretations - not as loose as a Powered by the Apocalypse sort of system - but it's also not a map with grids and everything like Dungeons & Dragons.
You have a bundle of powers that your exosuit is specialised in - one is a big bulking defender; one is the fast moving pathfinder. With these powers, you coordinate and destroy enemies that are threats to the cities. The premise of Lumen games in general is that enemies are constantly dropping resources - health and energy and stuff like that - so that you never feel like you have to decide if now is the time to use your powers. You are always hitting that Do The Cool Thing button constantly. That's the feeling that I want you to have.
The game takes place in two forms: the exploration phase and the combat phase. The point of combat is for it to feel fast and visceral. The GM then has tools to not only make the players feel powerful but for them to change tactics so that it's not two big bags of hit points smacking each other until one of them dies. The basic gameplay loop has you go on these missions and then come back to the city that you're protecting to start this rebuilding process.
This certainly still sounds like a video game-ass tabletop RPG.
Oh, 100%. I still absolutely want to capture the feeling of looter shooters or hero shooters: your Destinies, your Warframes and your Overwatches where you are this bundle of very cool powers and you go out on missions and you get to just feel like a badass for a little while. That's absolutely the feeling that I'm still trying to capture with Nova.
Are there any levelling mechanics? How does powering up Sparks work?
Customisation and advancement basically comes through these mods that you can slot into your powers and your exosuit [called Sparks in Nova] that give you customisability. For example, you might get a mod that increases the range of a power that you can plug into literally any of your powers. Which powers you decide to add these mods to is going to change the way that your character plays. And that's largely why they're going out on these missions - to get access to tech from Old Earth and bring it back to reincorporate into the buildings of these new cities.
I wanted to take that frustration and turn it into something productive.
Is Nova more suited for longer campaigns or smaller arcs?
It sits more in the small-to-mid tier campaign range. You can absolutely get a really satisfying two-to-five session arc in there. But I don't envision it - like most of my games - to be this thing that you're going to be playing for three years.
What's your approach to the setting? How much have you fleshed out versus leaving it to the players?
Basically, the further you are away from the cities, the stranger things get. It's not necessarily going to be fantasy magic stuff, but it is good to feel like there's something off going on in like the dark places of the world. I think the biggest in terms of player input for the setting comes from the city itself because that's the stuff they care about right there. They're building that city together; they're trying to protect it.
You’ve described Nova elsewhere as hackable, modular. What’s the goal in creating such a system?
I'm trying to get people to see that anybody can be a designer. By creating these games that are highly modular, you have the capacity to show people that they can create a small supplement to something and that could be your first design experience. It's been very neat seeing people who have never made something before or who are really into a particular video game realise they can translate that to the tabletop experience.
How did the Frame ordeal affect your approach to designing Nova?
In talking with Eddie Yorke, who's the artist, I was like, “Listen, this cannot look like Warframe. It has to be clearly different.” He had seen other previous instances of the Warframe community coming at artists who were doing things adjacent to Warframe. So he already knew not to kick that hornet's nest.
I feel very different than I did when we first talked because, today, I don't care about them anymore. I've really let them get under my skin and affect me. It's one of those things where I was overwhelmed, but I just don't give a shit about gamers anymore.