Game Review: Down and Out in Dredgeburg
Engine: Powered by the Apocalypse /
Down and Out in Dredgeburg is a role playing game and setting book created for the Starter Village Jam run on Itch.io in May of 2020. It is the creation of Skullfungus, an artist, game developer, and cartographer who's work I am very fond of.
Down and Out in Dredgeburg is a is set in a city that sits in a marsh on the boundaries between several different hellish underworlds. Damned and lost souls wind up here occasionally by accident after dying rather than going to the eternal torment to which they were bound.. Some characters take human form, While others are transformed into undead, or imps.
With nowhere to go, characters try to make as pleasant an afterlife for themselves as they can in a town beset by monsters, ruled by demons, and kept orderly by a corrupt and brutal police force. It reminds me of a mix of Grim Fandango, the Goon, and Dark Souls. It is bleak and whimsical at the same time.
Down and out in Dredgeberg is built on the World of Dungeons: a pared-down version of Powered by the Apocalypse that removes the moves system that usually defines PbtA games. Task resolution is handled by rolling 2D6, adding an attribute modifier ranging from -1 to +3, with advantage and disadvantage to handle extenuating circumstances. Advantage expressed by Rolling a third die and taking the two highest, while disadvantage requires you to take the two lowest of 3D6. A roll of six or under is a failure, a roll of 7-9 is a qualified success, and a roll of 10 or higher is a complete success. Qualified successes have consequences determined by the GM.
Beyond the World of Dungeons framework, Down and out in Dredgeberg adds mechanics for deprivation, tracking ammunition, poison, familiar spirits, and character backgrounds that were not included in the original World of Dungeons. It replaces the spirit summoning mechanic in World of Dungeons with a ritual magic mechanic. It has three classes, Gore, Dreg, and Witch, with the Gore and Dreg having six options for special powers, and the witch having six options for themes of spell they may use. Experience points are spent to either raise attributes or allow them to buy additional class abilities beyond the one randomly selected at character creation. It replaces the standard six Dungeons & Dragons ability scores used in World of Dungeons for Brawn, Move, and Wyrd
Down and Out in Dredgeberg uses art and flavour to take the World of Dungeons engine and truly make it sing. It offers a weird, wonderful, and very unique gaming experience.
What I Loved
The idea of playing characters lost in a sort of interzone in Hell is inspired. This could easily be dropped into almost any campaign after a TPK, used on its own, or just used as a place to visit.
Dredgeburg has six districts, Each of which is uniquely awful and strange at the same time. A Tomb full of Undead serving of archaeologists and librarians; A slum sitting at the edge of a monster infested swamp; A marketplace where anything and anyone might be bought or sold; A poisonous, insect-riddled Garden District full of carnivorous plants where are poisons and drugs are made as often as food; A Bastion of a corrupt and violent city guard that forces prisoners into Arena combat; and the pleasure palaces of demons and on envoys of the Princes of Hell that are riddled with Vice and Decadence. It presents number of sample characters, locations, and events give you a sense for the district.
There is a strong separation between the engine and the location, meaning you have barely any conversion work ahead of you to make use of the Dredgeberg setting if you choose to run it a different RPG of your choice.
|Monsters fr. Down and Out in Deredgeburg
by Skullfungus (license unknown)
I am a big fan of Skullfungus' art. I follow him regularly on Twitter, and make sure to share his maps and designs. They are a unique blend of cutely cartoonish and grim. Hey remind me of 19 30s and 40s cartoon art such as Betty Boop, certainly his designs would not look out of place in a Gothic reimagining of Cuphead.
Adventure Creation Engine
One thing I always appreciate when handed a role-playing setting, is some help in figuring out ways to use it. Down and out in Dredgeburg includes a massive set of tables for generating Adventure ideas, NPCs, and locations. (It is no coincidence in a game that uses all six sided dice that Dredgeburg has six districts.) The tables are a thorough enough that you can easily throw together a note that section of this game in about 5 minutes.
Credit Where Credit is Due
The contents and boilerplate page of Down and Out in Dredgeburg includes one of the most amazing special thanks sections it has been my pleasure to read. Skullfungus clearly credits all of the different games that he drew his mechanics from, with links to the original game. In fact, the only thing that page is missing is licensing information on Down and out in Dredgeburg itself.
Ammo Die Mechanic
I run hot and cold on usage die mechanics. On the one hand, I like the idea of coming up with the tracking system that simplifies the tracking of PC resources On the other hand, most of the time usage dice don't actually saving any time or energy compared to just keeping track of the total number of, say bullets, or rations that you have. It takes a particularly clever Twist on a usage die, like the lighting tracker in Delve 2e to be worthwhile.
The ammunition tracking system in Down and Out in Dredgeburg is one of those clever tools that actually does save player time. Your character carries an ammunition supply measured in dice, which forms a pool. Each time you end an encounter where you may have used up ammunition, roll your ammunition dice and remove all dice that show a one or two. Add more dice by looting enemies or buying them in stores. It allows you to track ammunition by simply having a pile of dice in front of you.
Clever Use of the 7-3-1 Method
The 7-3-1 Method is a session planning tool that I first saw mentioned by Jason Cordova over at The Gauntlet. Is a simple method where you create 7 NPCs or locations, make three notes about the sensory details, abilities, background, Etc about the item, and then one goal or motivation, and one way to embody them while role playing.
Down and Out in dredgeberg uses this technique for each district. Creating three sample NPCs, two sample locations, and two sample and counters for each district. It creates a pretty rich and flavorful description of each district in a very compact space. After looking at these you have a clear idea of what kind of character you might see there, what kind of places you might visit, and what kind of trouble you might get into in each district. The meat of the setting is done this way, eating only one page per City District while still providing a huge amount of information and inspiration.
HP Sack Enemies
This is a criticism I tend to level at almost any minimalist role playing game. Enemies are not much more than a damage number and a total of hit points. The funny thing is, there is a list of sample abilities that might be used by enemies in the back of the book, but only one of the encounters in the description of Dredgeburg actually use any of them. A short bestiary, or a few additional encounters in sample adventures where those were used would have be much appreciated.
The Setting the Stage Method is Overrated
This is possibly why I consider myself an OSR guy and not a Story Game guy; I am interested in exploration and strong immersion in my games. And that comes with the understanding that once the characters are in play, it is the Game Master's job to build the world and adjudicate the situations therein. Player agency is confined to determine what their characters can and think choose and try.
The Setting the Stage Method (also a creation of Cordova's) ask the characters to fill in some of the blanks for the GM. You ask them a series of questions about a character, a location, or situation. While this certainly engages their creativity, it also vastly increases the scope agency. I can see this working with the right group, but when I have tried using it in the past with my groups, they find it jarring and uncomfortable: they want to explore the world, not co- create it. Unless they're casting a spell, they want the virtual reality of the game feel fixed from "their side of the screen"
There's also the matter of the fact that some of these questions give the game away. For example, there is a situation in which characters are dealing with a creature that has escaped from a merchant. The question suggested to engage the players is "How can you tell that this animal has been abused?" This establishes, by the structure of the question, that the creature is an animal, which will change the way the players react to it. If they don't know whether or not it is intelligent, that will change the way they approach the encounter. Likewise, it just establishes that that, yes, the animal is abused. It takes away the opportunity for the PCs to get to know this for themselves, and it preloads the judgment on the merchant.
In other cases, the attempt to create player participation strips down character agency. For example, asking questions about an NPC such as "What about her makes you uneasy?" In doing this you demand that the players feel uneasy about the character. If a character makes a PC uneasy, it should be because the GM described her in an unsettling way and the player chooses to respond to it.
I choose to use such questions as thinking prompts for the GM to think out how to make the setting more immersive.
Equipment is Not Valuable
Beyond equipment and armour, there is no real compelling reason to carry anything in Down and Out in Dredgeburg. We lack any guidance on what mechanical difference a piece of equipment might make.
In many variations of the Powered by the Apocalypse games, equipment provides a bonus of plus one when it is appropriate to the task at hand. As an alternative, it might provide an advantage. In other situations, the lack of the right gear might impose penalties or disadvantage.
This is a problem that Down and Out jn Dredgeburg has inherited from World of Dungeons; just like in World of Dungeons, equipment is nothing but a list of items by price. No suggestion about their value to the game is made.
This being the case, why bother having it at all beyond weapons and armour? Why not assume that characters have any item they might reasonably wish to have under a certain wealth rating? For equipment be worthwhile to manage, it has to have some sort of mechanical value.
Ultimately, I, as a GM would wind up handling an equipment by allowing it to grant advantage and disadvantage if the players use it in a narratively appropriate way. And I expect that's how the majority of GM's would use it. However, one or two sentences suggesting consequences of having or not having a year would make that section far more valuable.
Down and Out in Dredgeburg is a great example of tight design and smart ways of using open source material. It uses a mix of solid design tools, great art, and a clever concept to create something that really stands out and begs to be played. Is certainly a setting I will be keeping on hand for my Dungeon Crawl Classics group, and would happily run as a One-Shot if I had a group of people looking for a game. And has a structure I would gladly Steel if I were to design a city setting.