Thursday, January 23, 2020

Zine Review: The Dirge of Urazya

The Dirge of Urazya is created by Jack Shear of Dolorous Exhumation Press, author of the long-running blog Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque. The zine is available in print + PDF here for just $6, and in PDF here for $4. Shear has written about the process of making it here and especially here. He did it all, from writing and illustrating to assembling the zines by hand. The zine presents the background of an apocalyptic gothic setting, and provides a series of questions for players and DM to answer in a session 0 where they collaboratively build the setting for their game together.

How is the Zine Made?

The zine is trimmed and saddle-stitched (stapled) with a black cardstock cover. The interior is 26 black and white pages printed on decent white paper (a step up from copier paper, maybe 24 lbs). Let's start with the cover. Just look at that thing. With just a few brushstrokes of white acrylic paint applied in a stencil, shear has created the ragged outline of white fangs, which emerge, luminous, from the darkness of the pitch black background. There is an aura or mood that hovers around the zine before you even open the cover. This simple but clever artistry is why I love handmade zines. Hand-painted covers using a homemade stencil? Brilliant.

It makes me think of a range of other possibilities. I'm a lover of elegant ink stamps. How about a white cover with a black and white illustration, embellished with a single elegantly placed red stamp? Or why just the cover? How about a motif that runs through the pages of the zine. You could pay black and white printing prices and then hand stamp certain pages of the zine. It would be a delicate operation, but the effect could be striking.

Back to Shear's zine, the interior is laid out in a single column for each page (double column for the facing pages), using the free word-processing program LibreOffice. It is self-illustrated by Shear. The opening illustration of the castle outline is great. The other interior ones have crude DIY vibe, which won't win any awards but work with the overall aesthetic of the zine. Again, I love about this zine how much Shear is able to do with basic resources.

The zine was printed online by a service called Best Value Copy, a competitor to Mixam, which I talked about last time. Shear ordered the prints as unassembled sheets, and folded, stapled, and trimmed them himself. Although this is not a big deal by any stretch of the imagination, unfortunately there are telltale signs of printhead smudging or misalignment in the zine. In inkjet printers, printheads are little nozzles that spray droplets of ink onto the page. In laser printers, they're lenses that fire a laser beam at a drum, building up an electric charge to attract toner to the drum in the pattern to be printed, which is then transferred to the paper. In both kinds of printers, the print heads can be become dirty (inkjet printers get clogged, laser printer printheads get smudged). In inkjet printers, they also need to be lined up and coordinated with the paper that's fed in, since they jiggle and spray the ink directly on the paper. If they're misaligned or dirty you get strange features, like blurry or darkening text or thin white lines running through text and images.

In my copy of the zine, the type on some pages is a little crisper than on others. In particular, the type tends to get marginally darker and blurrier as it moves across the page. It was subtle enough that I had trouble getting a photo of it on my phone, because the phone corrects for the differences in the shade and blurriness of the writing. To be clear, It's not the kind of thing you would notice, unless you know about printing and are anal about this kind of thing. But if you're going to pay someone else to do the printing and copying of your zine, you probably don't want this to happen, so I guess I don't recommend Best Value Copies. But I do recommend Jack's zine!

Castlevania is in the zine's appendix N, with good reason

What is the Zine About?

The zine presents the fantasy setting of Urazya (Eurasia). Humanity here was ruled like chattel by the Nobility, four great vampire houses. The vampire houses jealously guarded their knowledge of powerful magic and technology (including AI, and robots), keeping the human masses they ruled in ignorance. The vampire houses fell in the Global War, a nuclear and magical apocalypse that left standing only the great Capital, a Duskvol like gothic metropolis with crumbling steampunk technology, ruled by humans. The Capital is surrounded by the Borderlands, an uncharted post-apocalyptic wild-west, full of small villages, witches, demon worshippers, and--of course--vampires. Beyond this lies the Devastation Zones, forbidden irradiated zones full of mutants, environmental hazards, and lost technological wonders. The players play a group of "hunters": monster-slaying heroes.

The briefly presented scaffold of setting material is neat, but I had a little trouble holding the three thematic elements in my head at one time. First, you have a post-apocalyptic Gamma World type setting, with AI, robots, radiation, and mutants. Second, you have a setting where great vampire houses ruled ignorant human chattel. Third, you have a gothic metropolis, with dark streets, occult secrets, demons, vampires, werewolves, unhallowed fey, and 19th century historical trappings, including both the gothic city and a wild west periphery. I found that I could get two out three of these in view at any time. When I tried to hold them together in my mind, the closest I could get was the kitchen-sink aesthetic of Rifts, which I don't think is quite what Shear is going for, since it treats any period trappings as just one part of a pleasing but incoherent melange. To be clear, I think this may be a failure of imagination on my part (maybe I just need to watch more gothic themed anime), and more importantly, it is an issue that could be posed and hashed out in the Session 0 that Shear's zine equips you to run.

This is another item from Appendix N.
I haven't read it, but I always love Yoshitaka Amano's art.

This is where the zine really shines: the real innovation is what the zine does with this setting. The zine presents a simple system neutral procedure for a session 0 get together, in which your group collaboratively creates a setting on the provided scaffold. The retro-gaming scene (OSR, NSR, *Dream, whatever) has been excellent in providing vivid and intensely imagined worlds in a bottle. In other words, it has excelled at worldbuilding in the service of open world style (sandbox) play. But this has tended to take an authorial form, where someone invites you to play in their created world, and an associated culture where people encourage each other enthusiastically to share their creations with one another. The scene has not explored collaborative worldbuilding sufficiently, although there are some notable and excellent exceptions, like the home village generation in Beyond the Wall, or the use that some have made of Microscope to launch campaigns. I think this is a shame, because there's a lot of room to experiment with techniques for drawing players into collaborative worldbuilding, without undermining the asymmetry between player and DM that is crucial to retro-gaming play.

The method of collaborative worldbuilding the zine presents involves breaking the setting into 4 thematic sections: the world, the Capital, the borderlands and devastation zones, and a catch all including technology, the populace, magic, and the hunters (the party). Each section first provides some setting background to serve as the scaffolding for improvisation. The background is followed by a brief section called "aesthetics, themes, and imagery" that names a themes and mentions common elements to give you a sense of the flavor you should aim for in answering the questions. For example, the aesthetics, themes, and imagery of the section on the Capital begins like this:

Urban Decay. Slums and tenaments, rust, fog-choked streets, gangs and the criminal underworld, ramshackle homes made from scavenged materials, vermin, graffiti, outbreaks of disease.

Each such section is followed by a series of five "prompts", i.e. questions, about different aspects of the setting that the group poses to themselves and collaboratively answers. This is the heart of the technique, and it's worth looking at some of the questions Shear poses.

My favorite question is this one from the prompts on the capital: "Whose thrilling exploits are written about in pulp novels and penny dreadfuls, adapted to the stage, and the subject of popular ballads?" This is an amazing question, because it's such a creative way of projecting your imagination into the setting. In essence, it asks you how the people in the setting imagine their own heroes. It also shows rather than tells a lot of setting materials, communicating that this is a place where there are penny dreadfuls, and that people in the Capital read pulp fiction, and throng to a lively theatrical scene. It conveys immediately that there are legendary hunters or daring criminals out there, and that they have a role in the popular imagination, which might or might not align with reality. The answer to this question just oozes adventure possibilities: one hopes that the party of hunters will, in one way or another, cross paths at some point with this figure of popular legend. I can also imagine these kind of questions eliciting riffs on a theme, sprawling unpredictably outwards into a shared world. 

Other questions are more prosaic, such as, "Name an eldritch horror and describe their cult." The question is solid, conveying that the setting has eldritch horrors and cults. But it lacks the verve of the question about the penny dreadfuls. Most of Shear's questions are of this latter, more generic sort, for example, "What commodity is currently sought after in the Capital?" I though this was a bit of a missed opportunity. Perhaps this latter question might be pepped up in line with the penny dreadful question like this, "What commodity in the mail order catalogues has recently become all the rage in the Capital?" This would suggest that there are old-fashioned mail order catalogues full of wares and consumer fads in the city. It presents the same information but in a way that conveys the sense of a broader world, while also suggesting elaboration into immediate adventure possibilities. What are the main catalogues called? Who is running them? In short, I find the penny dreadful versions of the questions more fun to think about, and I suspect they would produce more fruitful collaboration.

After the collaborative prompts, there are various further tools for play, including a set of "Additional Prompts". These are not formulated as questions, but rather seem to be different elements (locations items, villains, gangs, etc) that can be included in the game by DM with further elaboration. They were a tad generic, e.g. under uncanny locations one entry is "An island used for secret rendezvous". There is also a list of one line adventure seeds that strike me as quite useful. There are several alternate campaign premises (play revolutionaries, or missionaries, or entertainers, etc.), and very barebones character background and personality traits that didn't do much for me. 

In Sum

This zine shines in two ways. First, it shows you just how much you can do starting with a good idea, a free word processing program, a long-arm stapler, and some creative flourishes.  The second is that The Dirge of Urazya is innovative, presenting an original template that can easily be reproduced. At its best the template fills a real lack in retro-gaming play. The zine's structure of four sections, each with background scaffolding, followed by terse notes on themes and imagery, and then a series of collaborative prompts is solid and could be easily replicated with any number of settings. In fact it's a great premise for a continuing zine. I think it would be neat if Shear continued with future issues for other worlds: each issue presenting a different world to be collaboratively built in a session 0. I hope he does it.    


  1. I’ve always found Stephen King’s Dark Tower series to be a wonderful post-apocalyptic world inhabited by decaying technologies, slow mutants, demons, and eldritch evil. Vampires, small dusty frontier towns, gunslingers - King stakes out his aesthetic in rare form over the course of the Dark Tower.

    1. Comfortably his most creative work (and I'm not slamming The Stand or the novellas or anything by saying that...)

  2. "The vampire houses jealously guarded their knowledge of powerful magic and technology (including AI, and robots), keeping the human masses they ruled in ignorance. The vampire houses fell in the Global War, a nuclear and magical apocalypse"

    This is, basically, what Vampire Hunter D. I think this influence is much more straightforward than Gamma World.
    Duskvol is 'Dishonored' Dunwall, most probably.

    1. I thought Vampire Hunter D might be the missing link here, aesthetically speaking. It's the only thing on his listed Appendix N that I had never watched or read.

  3. Advanced technology lurking beneath a gothic exterior,I've seen more than one Dr Who based around that.