Words by David C. Obenour
The time of heroes has passed us. In the barren setting of Casket Land there is only survival by any means necessary. Comforts are hard to find while hardened and vicious creatures are not, but it’s water that means everything. Water or the lack there of that drives all ambitions and men to madness.
Coming from a background of independent comic illustration and stories, Marie Enger has beautifully created her dust and doom filled world in the 32 black and white pages of Casket Land. An easy to follow – and free to download – system, emphasis is placed on a story of survival through force, wit and anything else within your grasp.
After successfully funding and creating the core game, Marie returned to Casket Land earlier this year for Cruach – an expansion that finds players in a world kneedeep in swamp and deadly infection carried by rabid death cultists. Another successful campaign means more doom filled adventures await for those who dare venture further.
Off Shelf: I’ve been starting out all of my interviews with this, but how are you holding up these days?
Marie Enger: Big. Long. Exasperated. Sigh. [laughs] I’m doing as good as anyone can be right now I think. I’m working, I’m playing a ton of table top, I’m drawing so much extra Casket Land Cruach content. [laughs]
OS: The world is a very different place from when you thought of and designed Casket Land, but I was wondering if there was anything about it that hits you differently in light of our modern reality?
ME: It’s… honestly been really surreal. Last year at Gen Con I was telling folks about the next campaign, the current campaign now – CRUACH – where Survivors would venture into a swamp filled with blood, homicidal trash collectors, death cultists, and a darkness so deep you’d never be able to crawl your way out… transmitted via an airborne plague. While I worked on the campaign last winter, I’d built this whole mechanic that incentivized players to buy and wear masks, gloves, and… stay away from cultists infected with this dark, blood rotting plague.
And then ya know – Covid happened. Hit us right after Casket Land CRUACH funded. I remember sitting on the PAX east floor holding up my phone and yelling “WE DID IT!” and two hours later telling someone I wasn’t worried about Covid.
Then I got Covid. Not from PAX – but probably from a grocery store in my neighborhood where someone wasn’t wearing a mask. I live in St. Louis – but I spent my teenage years in rural Missouri – and so I based Casket Land Cruach in the Ozarks. Which you might… have seen in the news ‘cause they went and decided to open up and start their own IRL Casket-Land-Style plague death-cult.
I’m gonna be really honest with you – everything hits bad. I love writing Casket Land, drawing it, coming up with super bleak scenarios for people to play out because at the end of the day I know it’s safe. “Nothing could have prepared you for this foul and brackish nightmare.” I wrote the dialogue for the death cultists to be so extremely over the top, so doom and gloom, so “this is terrible we won’t survive”… and now all of that’s real.
I don’t think I caused Covid, obviously. But… there was, is, a really terrible void I feel about how Casket Land Cruach unfolded in the real world. Everything hits, because suddenly everything became real. I ended up re-writing the game entirely. I couldn’t put people through fantasy covid, I couldn’t get past it myself. It made me too sad.
OS:What appeals to you about the apocalyptic western world narrative?
ME: I like drawing mummies in ponchos, people covered in dust, and outrageous end-of-times outfits.
What sucks is I actually don’t really engage with old-west style media at all. I haven’t ever seen Deadwood – but people tell me I should, I haven’t played Red Dead Redemption, I don’t really know anything about that stuff.
My mom is a history teacher – and we’ve been going over the atrocity of westward expansion since I was a kid. I think I was maybe like, 4 or 5 when we talked about the events leading up to the Dust Bowl and what the fallout from that was. I remember watching these huge dust storms when we lived in Phoenix and just thinking “we did this, we can’t stop it.” You can’t stop an apocalypse. You can’t control violent weather events. The dust, the end, will come and we are helpless to stop it. The terror of that is why I love apocalyptic settings. If suddenly nothing matters because it’s all gonna end, characters stop acting like things matter and take risks.
And that is what I love.
OS: The illustrations for Casket Land are beautiful and stark in a highly stylized manner. I was wondering if you could share any of your inspiration for the world – are there any albums, art, movies or other media that helped create your world?
ME: Murder. By. Death. Murder By Death! If you haven’t listened to their entire discography while you play Casket Land you lose Casket Land! Done! You’re dead! No water for you!
I’m also still really inspired by the horrible photos my mom showed me from the Dust Bowl – and other American atrocities, burned out forests, big piles of rocks, big piles of bones. That and Mad Max and Vampire Hunter D.
OS: When creating the player archetypes specifically, was there any inspiration that came for the roles you settled on?
ME: Oh yeah. I made a list of the standard classes in DnD and then just thought of their…”modern” day job equivalents. Casket Land was originally created as a 5th edition-ish homebrew game that I ran out of a comic shop for some sort of halloween event. From there, I started to think more about different sorts of jobs held by folks throughout history, and what those jobs would look like if there wasn’t any water, huge dust storms, and like just… monsters everywhere.
The Creep, magic users, classes are the hardest for me to write ‘cause you gotta get real creative with what sort of job can be skewed magic. They’re also some of my weirdest work and I’m real proud of them. The Liar class for Cruach… I’m so excited for people to play it, oh man!
OS: I love the Water mechanic for gameplay – can you talk about its importance in Casket Land and how you came up with it?
ME: Water is extremely important in Casket Land. If you don’t have water you can’t survive, in or out of game. It’s what ties all the Survivor’s together and keeps what passes for their society from just… going full monster-style-slaughter.
It was also a way for me to put a definite end cap on the game. When you are out of water, you are done. It keeps players on task, defines game sessions clearly,
I came up with it after running the first Casket Land game in like… 2016? Some dipshit in the random group that was playing refused to stay on task or work with the party. The game dragged on… four hours longer than it was scheduled. People were bored. It sucked. And when I left I was like “how can I make sure this never. ever. happens. again.” It was so perfect thematically that I couldn’t pass it up.
If you liked the Water mechanic, hopefully you’ll love the Brume mechanic that’s coming. ‘Cause it wasn’t enough to worry about one horrible status condition now you gotta worry about three.
OS: Manipulate, Trick, and Bribe as a Basic Move option also does a lot to color the game – can you talk about what you see that adding to the gameplay?
ME: What can I say? I almost exclusively play warlocks and rouges when I’m at the table! I like tricky characters in media and have a reputation of being a trickster in my friend circles. I can’t play a game if I can’t try to charm my way out instead of fighting out with my weak magic-user bod! Charisma is all I got!
In all seriousness – what I hope it adds is the incentive to try and get out of situations non-violently. There are some monsters I’ve stacked in the caskets that you can’t kill. There are some in the Swamp you can. not. kill. I want people to focus on non-violent resolution whenever they can – manipulate, trick and bribe makes that method more appealing I think.
OS: Beyond just an awareness of the players and basic game mastering skills, what do you see as the most valuable characteristic for a Guide to have in a game of Casket Land?
ME: The desire to “win.”
You are in an absolutely bleak and terrible landscape, there is pain all around you, and as that landscape, you must do whatever you can to claim the blood you are owed. It is a survival game, so a Guide must be dangerous.
There’s a fine line between “appropriately dangerous landscape” and “asshole.” I don’t want Guides to be sadistic to their players for no reason. That’s why there’s Loam. He offers help to the Survivors when they’re in a tough spot, gives the Guide a consistent character to play in game, and keeps the Guide from just… being a straight up asshole. Folks like Loam, I also like Loam, and for some reason are really reluctant to see him die – so he’s actually been a great little mechanic to help keep that balance.
OS: It seems that zine-style RPGs have a history of having been the refuge for half-cooked systems, but modern gaming has embraced the format as an affordable way to explore new worlds. What about the style appeals to you?
ME: The pricepoint for TTRPGs can be so exclusionary to folks who are cash poor or don’t have the spacial requirements for all those giant books. Aside from being amazingly creative, queer, and learning gateways for folks who want to start designing their own games, they are extremely portable and affordable. Casket Land is free by the way, you can download all the characters/rules/monsters ‘n stuff at casket-land.com.
I buy so many weird TTRPG zines because they always look so different than the big tomes. They’re so experimental, so passionate, so loved by their creators. I also come at it from the indie comics scene, so I am 100% biased towards small press. [laughs]
OS: Have you been working on any new projects during this time? Any other creative outlets you’re exploring?
ME: Oh yeah! A ton. They’re almost all… secret. All of ‘em are comics, ranging from kid’s dungeon crawler style stuff to absolute nihilist midwestern eldritch horror, except another game I’m gonna start really working on after Casket Land Cruach is 100% done. It’s so metal. It’s so brutal! I’m so excited to share it.
I can tell you about my comic “IN THE PIT” which is part of the upcoming blood-fi comic anthology DAGGER DAGGER. Think plato’s cave but with Vat Spawn who have LSD spit and a new-found sense of self and hatred towards the Wizard Kings that used their lives like they were nothing. Is it metal? Hell yeah! Is it covered in spikes? Yes. Should you kill the wizard kings?! Always.
Until then, folks can learn about my secret projects when they’re announced over at my twitter and instagram. Or they can read some of my previously published comic work at the HEK STUDIO PATREON or my website.