This review contains mild, general spoilers for the audio drama.
Reviewing an audio drama is a tricky thing. Unlike a full novel or even short story, there is very little content that can be discussed without essentially retelling the entire story seconhand. I’ve been a fan of Black Library’s audio dramas on and off since I got into the hobby, and most of them run around the 45 – 60 minute mark, with some longer pieces, such as the Celestine and Greyfax Sexual Tension Buddycop Story, Our Martyred Lady, weighing in at a ponderous 5 hours. Generally, audio dramas have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it in; the single commute to work, a single miniature painting session, a workout (Personally, I think Brian Blessed’s confused screaming as Gotrek might distract from my squat form, but you do you). These stories are also burdened with a somewhat awkward reality: not many people will listen to them (Even Blessed’s Gotrek has seen a printed version of the script and a novel sequel), implying that unless it’s in print, Black Library says it doesn’t matter, which is not a great implication for getting people to pay you money for an experience.
But oh, what an experience it can be, when it works.
Theatre of the Mind
Audio dramas are fairly niche; they combine stage play performance with audio-visual techniques, and in many cases feels extremely old-fashioned, harkening back to a period of media before visual media dominated the non-literary landscape. This is perhaps further removed from non-English audiences, as most modern audio dramas (not in the form of narrative podcasts, anyway, but closely related) feel as if they come exclusively from England, following in the steps of Dr. Who and other franchises that seek ways to reach their audience through the airwaves. Whenever I’ve talked to people about them, I’ve never actually met anyone who had listened to a Warhammer audio drama, and many of them seemed to assume I was talking about audio books, not dramas, which was somewhat disappointing. Unlike an audio book, which usually features a singular narrator playing all roles and without sound effects, audio dramas provide everything but the visuals to the listener, letting details fill in as our brains process the dialogue and sounds flooding into our ears. Sadly, the other issue is that not all audio dramas are, well, good. In fact, many of them aren’t even bad, but just mediocre; small, condensed narratives that don’t really do anything or produce anything of interest. Two of the first I ever listened to, Eye of Night and Hand of Darkness, I found the stories fairly flat and uninteresting, despite the absolutely “star-studded” main casts including Inquisitor Greyfax, the Visarch, and Yvraine. The acting was hammy (in the bad way), the plots jumbled and rushed (both featured conclusions so sudden that I was left wondering if there was something wrong with the CDs I’d bought), and details were either non-existent or dumped in huge expository monologues. The fact that I stuck through audio dramas and continued to enjoy them, then, perhaps says more about me than it does Black Library, but I will say that there are very good, very fun audio dramas out there… and Dredge Runners is one of the best.
The Quick and the Dead
Billed as a “Baggit and Clodde Audio Drama,” Alec Worley’s Dredge Runners is my second favorite audio drama, losing out only to Our Martyred Lady, and frankly, if Dredge Runners were longer, it would probably have taken the top spot. The Warhammer Crime label has been some of the most entertaining fiction Black Library has put out in a while, freed in a lot of ways from the need to cram Space Marines and product placement into every possible nook and cranny of a story. Dredge Runners takes this even further, featuring two characters who barely even have models to represent them (Baggit, a Ratling, and Clodde, an Ogryn), and a collection of co-starring characters that would require kitbashing to even approach. From a sales point of view, Dredge Runners is not going to put models in your hands, and for that reason, I actually sort of respect it more for how fun it ends up being.
The general premise is that in the hive city Varangantua (the same one featured in other Warhammer Crime stories, notably Bloodlines and Flesh and Steel), the Dredge contains the lowest of the low, an inescapable slum of poverty and desperation. Baggit and Clodde are ex-Astra Militarum, although why they’re ex-AM and not dead is never explained, but listeners learn early on that Clodde is a particularly “astute” Ogryn thanks to accidentally being shot in the head by Baggit. Paul Putner’s acting as Clodde really steals much of the show, as his ponderous and thoughtful monologues as the Ogryn, talking metaphysics and philosophy had me grinning from the sheer panache of his dialogue. Jon Rand’s Baggit is similarly smooth, evoking a rogue Hobbit-esque scoundrel with a (wounded) heart of gold. For their credit, the rest of the voice crew do a good job, but no one steals the audio drama as much as the radio announcer, David Seddon–but we’ll come back to him.
Baggit and Clodde find themselves at odds with just about everyone in this drama after a botched trade leaves them indebted to a dangerous ganger, only to have their “repayment” put them in the crosshairs of a seemingly saintly Preceptum. How they escape danger is half the fun, but suffice it to say the drama does at least let you know that they will indeed, as otherwise “A Baggit and Clodde Audio Drama” would be fairly weird. Although only having an hour to tell its story, Dredge Runners wastes very little of it, and I found the story avoided any low, dull points or expository dumps, perhaps due to the limited view of the protagonists: Baggit and Clodde aren’t interested in knowing everything, so neither are we. In other audio dramas I’ve listened to, this has been the kiss of death for me, and Dredge Runners deftly avoids that pitfall, keeping the story focused and the narrative forward moving.
Surprise, it’s Empathy!
When Baggit cried in frustration around the climax of the audio drama, I was so taken aback by it that I actually paused the audio for a moment. It wasn’t exactly that the crying was out of place for the event, but it was more the immediate thought in my mind of “Did a male character in a Black Library story just show emotional vulnerability?”. It is perhaps “controversial” but in many BL stories, characters express very few emotional states that are not “anger” or “aloof detachment”, and there are a lot of ways in which the Warhammer product expresses certain unspoken normative behaviors. Hearing a character cry from the sheer frustration of being poor, stranded, and sinking under the weight of an oppressive lifestyle was, well, a 2020 mood, but also something I never really thought I’d read, let alone hear, in a BL product. It instantly made Baggit a more rounded character than many others who I read about for hundreds of pages, and in terms of audio dramas, instantly cemented this story as a favorite.
While the story doesn’t dwell on this moment for long, it dwells on it enough to make it a significant turning point in the direction of the story. It also marks something that makes this drama very interesting from the perspective of a longtime fan of Warhammer lore: depictions of everyday life. There is not a single Space Marine, Commissar, Lord (well, one), or any other marquee personage in this entire drama. The best character, in all honesty, is the radio announcer that speaks during the prologue, midpoint, and epilogue of the drama. Playing the part of a radio propagandist, the announcer hams it up in the greatest way, selling Lho sticks to beaten Imperials, warning of reduced faith and work ethic, and calling on listeners to recite their litanies. Where there some sort of civilian level video game, you’d expect to hear this sort of commentary during quiet city moments or exploration segments in the background. The final announcement is perhaps the best, and I won’t spoil it, but it felt like an amazing way to both end this drama and harken back to the radio dramas that these audio stories are descended from.
This drama is not without a few missteps, and one of the most grating is the use of sound effects to set the scene. While most of the time these are mood setters, a few times during this drama I found myself reaching for the volume on my stereo out of sheer, ear grating noise. I get it. Imperial slums are industrial nightmares. I don’t need to hear it quite that authentically. The audio noise also drowned the dialogue at times, which seems like a mixing problem more than anything else, but just as the little touches in voice acting sucked me in, these little periods of audio disharmony pulled me right back out of it, fiddling with volume more than concentrating on what was happening.
Of course, this final complaint feels silly, but this just felt like a story that was beginning. This is the origin of Baggit and Clodde, but the sad reality is that it may take years before we ever see more of them. I’d love to have had this get a multi-disc release, perhaps one that recounted a few individual episodes, but the reality of these audio dramas is that they probably exist on a fairly shoestring budget, and their life and death is perhaps determined by sales than interest. Who knows; maybe, like with Blessed’s Gotrek, we’ll get a series of Baggit and Clodde novellas or full-length novels, but honestly I want to see more of these characters, more of Varangantua, and I specifically want to hear more of these things. These are the types of stories the audio dramas can excel at telling. I don’t want to hear Space Marines talk to one another, I want to hear the struggles and daily life of Imperial citizens. I want to hear the indoctrination and propaganda that blares across their planet at all hours of the day; if there were ever a reason to listen to audio dramas, these are the reasons.
In the end, Dredge Runners is perhaps one of the best audio dramas I’ve heard from the Black Library selection, and if separated from the deluxeified, celebrity-laden dramas like Our Martyred Lady or Gotrek, the best audio drama I’ve ever listened to from Black Library in general. But I get it; audio dramas are cheesy. They aren’t acted in a way that live-action or animated films can convey. They aren’t as interactive as a video-game or a novel. But what they are is great exercises in the imagination, of hearing the world of Varangantua, of the 41st Milennium, come to life through your ears, rather than your eyes. Rather than wondering what paint recipe was used to make that miniature or whether that Space Marine is rendered to scale, audio dramas let listeners do the imagining in a universe that is almost entirely prescribed. What Baggit and Clodde, or Preceptum Savriel Sabbriatti and Tabidiah Kruger looked like in my mind will likely differ for anyone else. And in that sense, the audio drama is an absolute treat. But is it worth your money? Well, that’s sometimes a harder question to answer.
Audio dramas run around the $13/€10 rate for mp3 files, but get considerably more if buying them physically on CD (which tend to have low, single print-runs from my experience). For that price, I believe Dredge Runners is well worth the price of admission, giving listeners an hour of enjoyment that’s atmospheric, fun, and imaginative. So if you’ve never tried the Black Library audio drama range, and you love Warhammer 40k as a setting, and not just a game, then Dredge Runners is absolutely a bargain for an interesting, entertaining good time; whether it will become the first of many in the “Baggit and Clodde” line, who knows, but for now, I’m content to listen to this one a few more times as I work on my Necromunda models and consider Imperial life that isn’t enshrined in power armor.