Meet the Publisher: Crumbling Keep
Crumbling Keep is composed of James Crane and Brad Kishbaugh, two lifelong friends who decided to publish gaming material. They were kind enough to answer some questions. They're probably best known for the recent Marching Order, a box set of solo gamebooks or "delves".
Question: First off, tell us about Marching Order, which has become your flagship product. I've become interested in the explosion of growth in solo rpgs that has occurred since the start of the pandemic, and I'd be curious to hear about how Marching Order came about and what niche you think it fills.
Brad: So it actually predated the pandemic... James: I had started designing a solo gamebook like game but it had fallen by the wayside. I stole some ideas from it, but it was a lot different than the Marching Order we see today. Brad: The solo aspect is definitely something that fit well with the times, but it wasn’t the catalyst. James: The ideas for some of the core mechanics came in late 2020. I was playing a mobile game that was basically a rip off of Darkest Dungeons (which I’ve never actually played.) I just kept thinking that it’d make an awesome tabletop RPG. We also wanted to do something for zine quest 2021, which was in February. After trying out the basic idea with my wife, I pitched the idea to Brad and he didn’t talk me out of it. We playtested some of the core mechanics together, and then we were off. Brad: It was a little crunchy at first, but we knew we had something worth spending our collective time on, and James had already found the perfect artist for the project. James: I first saw Mustafa Bekir’s art on twitter. It has this great, grimy old school British feel to it. I absolutely loved it and knew I wanted to contact him to work on a project once I found the right one. When it came time to think about the artistic direction of Marching Order, his name was top of the list. It was really a perfect fit. I really can’t go on enough about what a pleasure he is to work with. I really think his work is essential to the MO vibe. Brad: No doubt his art sets the visual tone. Once we had the book covers from him, I just tried to give Mustafa’s art the room it needed to shine. His character work has a weathered, mucky feel to them, and I wanted the book to match that style. The writing is humorous, but I didn’t want the aesthetic to be silly. Rotbottom, the town MO is set in, is dirty, dark, and dangerous. I’ve tried to give James’s writing that same environment to live in. James: The art and layout really ties into its vibe, which is actually kinda different than a lot of the stuff I work on. It’s almost a parody of itself in a sense- it’s dark and gritty. The characters are grizzled rogues, just trying to get coin and pay their bar tab. But it doesn’t take itself seriously. It laughs at itself (and the player)- a lot. The tone is something I play with a lot. It kinda swings back and forth between dramatic and dick jokes. I think Mustafa’s “over the top” art style and Brad’s layout of it reflect that as well. I’m actually really excited about the upcoming “Lurker of the Duskgloom Wood.” I’m really in love with my writing for it. Rereading parts of it, I go between giggling and feeling chills. We’ll talk more about that in a bit. Oddly, I wasn’t consciously making a solo rpg in response to the pandemic, despite that the two things really coincided. The idea just really fit well with solo play, so it just sorta worked out that way. Brad: And who doesn’t love playing with themself?
Question: Marching Order is billed as a solo/cooperative game. What's the process like writing something so that it can be used solo or with a group? When you're writing something to be used as either solo or co-op, which angle do you approach the design from?
Brad: This is James’ wheelhouse. James: For a lot of games with a “solo mode”, I feel like it often feels like it’s an afterthought. There’s a lot of disappointing solo modes out there. Marching Order is kind of the opposite in our starting point. It was always written first and foremost as a solo game. That said, there really isn’t much of a difference between solo play and playing with a group. In Marching Order, you control four Rogues as you go through a dungeon. If you’re playing co-op, you basically just split those Rogues up between the players. So it works co-op wise with up to four players. The only real consideration that I had when writing it in regards to co-op vs solo was what happens if you have three players? Four divided by three isn’t even. For that specific scenario, I basically came up with an automated engine that takes on the role of player four- the Construct. It picks actions based on random dice rolls in much the same way the enemies do. So the simple answer is that I approach it from the angle of it being solo first and if something wouldn’t naturally work cooperatively, then I tack on some extra mechanics, but it’s rare when I have to do that.
Question: You recently finished an Indiegogo campaign for a quick delve and before that ran a Kickstarter campaign for another delve. Why did you decide to try another platform? What was your experience with Indiegogo? What are strengths and weaknesses of each platform?
Brad: We started with Kickstarter to participate in Zine Quest 2021; even though our finished product went about 200 pages over the max page count for a zine, eventually becoming the 2 book set it is today. James: My dumb ass is terrible at judging the length of a finished product. Brad: It was during the KSer for Master of the Onyx Tower that IndieGoGo actually reached out to poach us from KSer. James: The thing is, KSer has numbers. It has a huge user base. But we actually talked to real, live, helpful people at IndieGoGo. We’re not a huge company- all the product we ship out is in my second story apartment. But yeah, they reached out to us anyway and they’ve been so helpful every step of the way. They’ve offered insight on setting up our campaign, marketing... they’ve been great at answering questions and it really feels like they’re rooting for us. Brad: In the past year we’ve really focused on our marketing campaigns, and as James said, they were super supportive of that. Also, for now, they take 2% less off the top than KSer, so…. James: We’ve had some really interesting post campaign updates, though. And the Quick and Dirties were a bit of an experiment for us in numerous ways. In the post campaign stats, we found the vast majority of backers were folks we brought in ourselves, not the platform. Now, it’s hard to say what that means. We’ve been working really hard to build some MO community within the last year, so it might just be a testament to that. It was really cool to find out so many of our fans were willing to follow us to another platform. We’ll probably play with this more in the future.
Question: Finally, tell us about what you are working on next, if you can.
Brad: A World of SHIT! Seriously, I’ve been doing layout on Neck Deep: The Sewers of Rotbottom for a few weeks now, and we’d like to have it ready for campaign by March 2023. It usually takes about 6 to 8 weeks for me to complete the layout for a book, start to finish. So, we’re on track to print when the crowdfunding campaign starts. I’ve been having fun finding as much defecation related or adjacent imagery as possible. The writing really makes you giggle sometimes, and though I don’t want the aesthetic to be silly.. poop is funny. Someone in a comment once wrote that they wouldn’t play MO because of the sophomoric humor. We took that as a compliment. Anyway, we’ve collectively been working on The Sewers for more than a year now, and we’re finally in the layout phase. James: This is something our fans have been clamoring for. The Sewers is basically a random dungeon generator. Where the other MO delves have a finite amount of play in them, The Sewers can generate dungeons forever. We actually advertised The Sewers in the core book, but it’s taken us a long time. We just really wanted to get it right. I think one of the real strengths of Marching Order is the fiction of it. It’s not just a dice chucker, like some other games in the genre (no hate on them, it’s just not what we’re doing.) It went through a complete rewrite at one point. The good news is, we’re really happy with what we created. It has the right amount of “push your luck” and story. The introduction of the escalation die made sure that the randomly generated adventure scaled appropriately. The longer you’re in the sewers, the more dangerous it gets. Brad: So, another thing we’ve been working on was thrown at me mid sleep. James woke me in the middle of the night to run on about “Gangs of Rotbottom.. A cool skirmish minis game set in Rotbottom, blah blah blah.” He has a habit of frantically pitching ideas when we’re “Neck Deep” in other projects. Though, it’s going to be a great game in and of itself. Why don’t you pitch it to them. James: Lol. It was actually when we were fulfilling the first kickstarter, drowning in cardboard and way overwhelmed. I’m not going to live that down anytime soon. I’d recently rewatched Gangs of New York. I was just thinking of that first scene, which had an almost fantasy feel to it as everyone got their absurd weapons ready to go to war in the streets. I felt like it had a real Rotbottom feel to it. Being a fan of minis agnostic skirmish games, I instantly fell in love with the idea