Let’s Read: Dirge of Urazya

“Dirge of Urazya” is a zine from Jack Shear (author of “Krevborna” and several other system-neutral setting books). I’ve given this no more than five seconds of flipping through before writing this post, so this is my initial read-through. You can read his blog posts on it as well.

A pile of skulls in a a concrete room with high arched windows.

First Impressions

Jack has produced what is in many ways an old-school zine: not the small press glitzy versions that have become somewhat more common, but an individually-created labor of love. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a physical copy with a hand-painted cover, which is just a creepy set of teeth and fangs. I hope that’s the tone throughout. PDFs are available on DriveThruRPG, which is good since the physical prints are sold out. And it’s only $4. I spent more than that on coffee yesterday.

Apparently he did the illustrations as well. Except for the skyline with what look like minarets, most of the rest of the drawings are monsters. The whole book is in black and white, but (unlike some of the zines I remember from the late 80s and early 90s) the typeface and layout are super easy to read.

Organization

The first page introduces the idea: a “system-neutral roleplaying ‘zine designed to help your group collaboratively create a setting” named Urazya “that mixes ideas drawn from the Gothic, Western, post-apocalyptic, and science fantasy genres”. If I hadn’t already bought it, I’d be slamming cash on the barrel head right now.

We then get twenty prompts to “build your version of the setting as part of the first session of play” by discussing them as a group. This takes up the first half or so of the zine. In this section, left-hand pages have basic lore. The world was devastated in a nuclear and magical war between houses of vampire lords; the last great city is known as Capital, surrounded by Borderlands and Devastation Zones; tech and magic coexist, as do distinct “races” or “ancestries”, from which Hunters spring to fight the monsters in the land. Right-hand pages have summaries of “Aesthetics, Themes, and Imagery” to set the tone before a chunk of prompt questions: “name an eldritch horror and describe their cult”; “what gang of desperadoes is infamous for their cruelty?”; questions to establish the Hunters’ bonds and rivals.

After that, we’ll find more prompts to generate factions, locations, NPCs, and items during subsequent sessions. Much like his full setting books, adventure seeds are short, chunky sentences with bolded verbs:

Locate a grimoire and keep it from falling into the wrong hands.
Reconnoiter the area near an ancient obelisk where a spacefaring vessel has crashed.
Investigate a series of killings that have left behind ritually disemboweled corpses.

If monster hunting doesn’t appeal to the group, alternate frameworks can be used. Some suggestions in the zine: revolutionaries, cultists, missionaries, etc. Each of these has a suggested area and the bones of an idea.

One of the other things I have enjoyed about his settings crops up here: ideas of character concepts that fit the tone, for players who still need a bit of a guide. These range from the cliched (“tomb robber”, “crusader”, “bounty hunter”) to the offbeat (“adventuring librarian”, “gunwitch”, “traveling exorcist”). Showing this section to players all on its own will probably get their creative juices flowing. Some random tables for character origins, backstory, and personality follow.

The final section, Practical Matters, talks about names, maps, monsters (“any monster can work well… only ever a matter of describing it in terms that evoke the Gothic grotesque”), currency, languages, religion, etc.

I want to highlight a paragraph on Prejudice because this is already basically how I run games and it points out how we can make games safer for players:

Urazya’s communities tend toward pragmatic egalitarianism. Prejudices involving gender and sexual orientation are fairly rare among the Urazyan populace, though some backwards settlements may hold less than enlightened views. Similarly, mutants and the nonhuman races created by the Nobility’s experiments are generally afforded the full range of rights afforded to mankind, but there are areas where they might encounter distrust, discrimination, or even oppression. If your group does not want prejudice to factor into their version of Urazya at all, feel free to omit it entirely.

Finally, a list of his inspirations:

  • Vampire Hunter D light novels and anime
  • Castlevania games
  • Cradle of Filth, White Zombie, etc.

Using it at the table

I’ve not used it in a game yet, but I expect to do so very soon. The nexus of genres fits a number of things already percolating in my head and under discussion in my circle of friends. Not only that, but I see a lot of themes carried over from Krevborna that I can backport into my games in that setting. This is the first way I’ll be using it, to be sure: grabbing prompts and elements to add flair to a world that shares some genre similarities.

If we play this in D&D 5e, I’d probably focus on the monster hunting aspect. That lends itself to the default advancement method (experience points for defeating monsters) and provides plenty of opportunity to introduce players only familiar with traditional playstyles to a bit more collaborative worldbuilding.

But it would also fit several Powered by the Apocalypse games: “ask questions, use the answers” is a core ethos in that genre. Whether we use Dungeon World or Monster of the Week becomes a function of whether we want to focus on hunting treasures & adventure or focusing in on specific monsters terrorizing isolated areas. Pick the game that fits the kind of stories the group wants to explore. (I might even use it as a starting point for Downfall at some point!)

I like using factions in games, partly due to my experiences with the previous era of Adventurers League and partly due to the MMORPGs I’ve played. Building new factions that could be allies, adversaries, or simply part of making the world feel alive is a core part of my playstyle, and DoU provides plenty of ideas to do so.

Wrap-up

A twenty-four page zine by an independent author will never provide as much detail as an encylopedic tome from a large corporate producer. But I’m not sure the additional detail in those larger books actually gets used in games. They’re fun to read and study as lore, but every different gaming group or campaign takes that lore and creates their own instantiation that diverges from the original. This might only be a little, or it might twist the original setting into something almost unrecognizable. But that’s a feature, not a bug, of roleplaying games. Setting material like this leans into that idea and gives the players – all of them – both the encouragement and the tools to customize it, rather than present lots of “canon lore” and then a vague statement about feeling free to “change it if you want”.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Read: Dirge of Urazya

  1. Great review — I’ll buy Dirge right away.

    In particular, that “Wrap-up” paragraph is a superb presentation of an important idea. Most big-book material is weight that never delivers.

    Like

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